Powerful Medicine


Morning dose, gravel therapy. (Photo, Eric Vacek)

I was an art and English major in college. (They didn’t offer gravel cycling back then, either because it wasn’t academic enough, or because it wasn’t really a thing.) So my interests include all kinds of creative endeavor. Writing, painting, bicycle repair, you name it.

And, judging by the banner ads that follow me around the internet (life insurance and Viagra, mostly), I must also be entering “a certain age.”

So when NPR ran a story headlined, “Can Poetry Keep You Young?” Ina Jaffe had me coming and going.

She began: “Creating some form of art is commonly believed to help older people stay mentally and physically healthy.” (It’s weird how this belief about healthy old artist clashes with our notion of younger artists as starving, destitute depressives. But that’s another story.)

Jaffe said that researchers haven’t yet pinned down in replicable experiments exactly whether the health benefits of art hold up. We just want to believe that surely they must.

And if art is medicine, we’re equally convinced its absence is poison. (I couldn’t help but think of William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”)


W.C.W. looks like he could grind some gravel.

But you ask: What’s any of this got to do with bikes, already?

Simmer. I’m getting there.

Science doesn’t have much to say on the health benefits of art, but there’s research up the wazoo on health and cycling. It’s right there on those damned life insurance ads. “Do you ride 50+ miles per week?” Why, yes, internet. How did you know? “Special rate life insurance for cyclists. 18% lower risk of all-cause mortality.”

Wow. Actual actuary science…

I’m not arguing that this research means cycling has anything over art. It doesn’t. In fact, I suspect all that exercise science research on cycling has a fat black hole in it—big enough to fit the art world inside. You’ll see it if you look past cycling as aerobic exercise. See cyclists as something more than quads and lungs in the way of your car. Look at cyclists instead like a bunch of old poets. And what pops up are the same benefits in cycling that science somehow can’t quite detect in the arts.

Jaffe sat in on a poetry workshop in a California senior center, where the poets were in their 80s and 90s. “Regardless of age or subject matter,” she said, “everyone here is serious about becoming a better poet.”


Poetry in motion, it ain’t. (Photo, JLS Photo)

There’s no magic in a pen or a paintbrush or a crank arm. The magic’s in that seriousness about getting better. In that senior center, their seriousness drives their work and brings them together as a group. They share purpose, endeavor and community.

I don’t care whether science can test that or not. On a bike or on a canvas, if you have purpose, endeavor and community, you have the stuff of powerful medicine.

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