Heart Disease

My Bike Saved More Than My Heart

Taking up biking allowed me to work on my heart and my mental health at the same time.

I have taken the time to structure my family’s life in a way that requires only one 40-minute drive to Costco per month. Sure, we’ll need to do a little weekly grocery shopping at our local supermarket to fill in the gaps, but I can only stand for one, arduous monthly trip to Costco.

So when my husband made the right-hand turn into the Costco parking lot, just days after our monthly trip—and on date night, no less—I heaved a heavy sigh. 

“Please don’t tell me we forgot something and we’re using our one night away from the kids to get it,” I said.

He didn’t say anything. He parked the car and we walked up to the entrance as he fumbled through his wallet to find his Costco card. I walked a few steps behind him, scowling like a child. 

Zoning in on what he wanted, he turned down an aisle and stood in front of a long box. I caught up and followed his gaze. A stack of nearly five-foot boxes displayed a simple women’s bike.

“Is this the one you were looking at?” he asked me.

A little bewildered, I nodded. 

“Okay stay here and I’ll go grab a handcart.”

The Perfect Bike Is The Enemy Of The Good

During my grocery run a few days earlier, I’d sent him a quick text message after seeing the boxed, hybrid bicycle. Maybe I’ll just give up and buy this bike at Costco, it read. 

I had been searching for a bike for two solid weeks. Each night after my two sons went to bed, I plopped down onto the couch with the lap desk and my Macbook in hand. I read about mountain bikes, road bikes, and hybrid bikes. I made wish lists on Amazon, checked out all of the small bike shops in my area, and browsed every available option online. 

Ten days into my searching, my husband stared at me from the other side of the couch.

“At this point… I think maybe it’s just more important for you to get a bike, rather than finding the perfect one.”

“At this point,” he started with caution, “I think maybe it’s just more important for you to get a bike, rather than finding the perfect one.”

Though I refused to admit it at the moment, my husband was right. My 34-year-old heart, which has been the subject of much testing but no diagnosis, required some regular cardiovascular exercise.

Along with my unnamed heart issue, I also deal with generalized anxiety disorder. My anxiety often manifests as perfection, worry, and planning, which then leads to decision fatigue.

That’s how we ended up at Costco on date night. 

A Need For Speed

About three years after the birth of my first son, now 13, I started losing my hair in clumps. Dizziness and body weakness accompanied me each day. Some days I felt mostly fine, but most days I had no strength and the dizziness was debilitating. 

Sitting in my endocrinologist’s office for a follow-up visit, I remember the nurse taking my pulse and blood pressure. His left eyebrow raised as the numbers came through on the monitor.

“Are you a runner?” he asked, and I laughed. 

“No,” I said with a grin. “My blood pressure has always been super low.”

“No…” he said. “I’m talking about your heart rate. It’s in the 50s.”

“Oh,” I replied. “No, I’m not a runner.”

“Just wondering because usually, people with low heart rates are typically runners.”

At the time, I had been dealing with symptoms for a couple of years. I’d seen a host of doctors and been hospitalized twice. All of the tests my many doctors ran— the hormone tests, thyroid tests, blood sugar tests. The balance tests, autoimmune disorder tests, the food sensitivity tests— came back negative. 

The nurse’s comment about my heart rate stuck with me though, because it had not been mentioned before. 

The only diagnoses I received through those years were vertigo and bradycardia, or simply, run-of-the-mill dizziness and a low heart rate. 

My symptoms subsided for a few years, so I dialed back on the doctor’s visits and testing. 

Getting On The Saddle

In April of 2018, I woke up one morning in a cold sweat. My heart was pounding and I could not see straight. I stumbled into the bathroom and steadied myself by putting my hands on the sink. I stared at the faucet, willing my eyes to focus and the swirling in my head to stop.

That morning ended in a trip to the emergency room via ambulance. Though the EMT found no sign of a heart attack, my heart rate was so low he said he had to take me in. 

I’d find out from an ER doctor that my heart rate had actually tanked to the low 30s. But again, all of my tests came back normal. I was sent to a cardiologist who did another EKG, performed a stress test, and strapped a 24-hour halter monitor to my chest. 

Other than a low heart rate—now regularly in the 40s—he, too, relayed normal test results. The consensus between the various physicians is simple though: a regular regiment of cardio is necessary, and the sooner the better. 

I live less than a mile from three different bike trails, and I also vaguely remembered liking riding a bike as a child. Aside from walking, biking also seemed the most accessible. On the days when my body refuses high-intensity exercise, I can pedal leisurely, while still increasing my heart rate. 

What I didn’t expect, though, was relief from my anxiety disorder. 

Biking My Way To Better Health

After a few test runs, I decided to go for a longer ride. I was cruising along the flat trail, gliding past the palm trees and Mexican petunias. It was hot, but the humidity was low and a slight breeze whirred past my ears. 

I came to a small, bridge that crossed the intercoastal and slowly pedaled myself over it, my heart pounding in protest. The downhill was not steep by any means, but it was long, winding around a few condominiums. As I descended, the whirring turned into whooshing. Gaining speed, I couldn’t help but smile, a small grin turning wider as I continued my trek downhill. I let my feet off the pedals, fully laughing at this point. 

My bike slowed as a rounded the corner, and I gathered myself, placing my feet back on the pedals and straightening my face, embarrassed by my joy. 

In less than a minute, I had reconnected to a childhood sense of- oy that’d I’d long gone without. 

Dealing with an anxiety disorder means “fun” doesn’t exactly come naturally. Unless I can determine the ROI on my activities, I generally don’t do them. “Just for fun” isn’t something I’ve been able to measure on the importance scale in the past.

That 40 seconds on the downhill though, was unencumbered fun just for the sake of it. In less than a minute, I had reconnected to a childhood-sense-of-joy that’d I’d long gone without. 

There is, of course, ROI on all this bike riding. Anything I can do to get my heart rate up is a positive. But I didn’t know I’d been missing the joy so much.