Extreme sports are highly appealing to young men and women in the 18 to 34 age group. The popularity of extreme sports such as sky surfing and downhill mountain biking offers insights into the psyche of the younger generation. Key insights revealed by extreme sports include the appeal of risky activities and a strong desire for individuality. These sports may also represent the strong entrepreneurial and competitive nature of younger Americans.
First there was bungee jumping, mountain-biking and snowboarding. Now we have sky surfing, street luging, river running, riversurfing, BASE jumping, downhill mountain biking at speeds as high as 60 mph and extreme fighting. What these activities cum “extreme sports” have in common is that they involve high risk for injury and even death, and are extremely attractive to men 18 to 34, the most elusive and difficult demographic for marketers and advertisers.
Given the extreme nature of these sports, the question of how widespread they are naturally presents itself. True, snowboarding and freestyle skiing have been added to the Winter Olympic Games, and ESPN covers extreme sports extensively in its biannual X Games. But looking for data to substantiate the numbers of participants and spectators is really almost an irrelevant endeavor.
What is crucial for marketers to see is that these sports have become the “coolest” sports among kids, teens and Gen Xers, and therefore are a fast growing outlet for fantasy among boys and young men, and a smaller but growing number of women.
1/ The Tools Needed to Participate in Extreme Sports
Cyclists in Italy reject negative images of older age. They go out of the house dressed in loud colors, and embrace arduous physical challenges. They have fun on their bikes with the enthusiasm of children. They get together to share meals or meet up in the bike shop, where they joke around like boisterous teenagers. In short, older cyclists do not deny the aging process, but they do refuse to be ruled by the mask.
Many nonwestern societies also provide alternative models of old age. For example, among the San mentioned above, older people are appreciated for their storytelling, the time they spend with children, their knowledge and custodial care of important resources such as water holes, and their ability to enter into trance for healing or religious purposes. This spiritual activity is usually avoided by younger people, who can’t deal with the pain and energy drain of trance while they still have children to raise and social relationships to maintain through gift exchange. Older people are free to pursue their interests and hobbies. They are not at all marginalized.
Gerontologists say that the marginalization of people during old age is harmful to their wellbeing. Physical activity is an effective tool for building a way of life that is more socially integrated, one that promotes “positive” or “successful” aging. My study tries to explain not just the anomaly of highly-active individual cyclists but also the culture that supports them. This culture persists in opposition to the values of industrial society that favor the distancing of people from exercise through the use of cars, domestic appliances, and televisions and computers. These machines tend to isolate people in addition to rendering them inert.
It may be hard for noncyclists to imagine what it takes to ride over the roads these older cyclists cover on an ordinary day. Most of the mountain climbs in this part of the Apennines rise between one and three thousand feet (300 to 900 meters) over three to eight miles (five to twelve kilometers). This means pedaling uphill with no breaks for twenty minutes to an hour or more. In between climbs you might spend an hour on a relatively flat road but the pace is fast, seventeen to twenty miles an hour on average. Some groups and riders maintain a faster pace, others a slower one, but cyclists of all ages and abilities can’t seem to resist being competitive with one another. As a result, cyclists almost never give in to weariness; the height of dishonor would be to get down from the bicycle and walk.
There is a striking similarity in the appearance of seasoned riders in Italy and the sinewy older folks among modern-day foraging populations such as the San of southern Africa. Until the 1970s, the San continued to live by gathering and hunting wild food. Since then most groups have been forced to settle in permanent villages, but some people still gather and hunt. Anthropologists have analyzed the way of life and health patterns of the San and the fifty or so other contemporary foraging populations around the globe in relation to the skeletal remains of Paleolithic peoples. Their conclusion is that for almost all of human history women and men have practiced significant physical activity in all phases of life, including old age. Among older foragers, it is usual to maintain a high level of physical fitness and not to suffer from the chronic diseases–cardiovascular disease, cancer, Type II diabetes, and others–so common in our society.
The vast majority of older-age foragers do not undergo certain physiological changes considered natural and inevitable by modern medicine and popular culture: for example, an increase in body fat, blood pressure, or heart rate. Likewise, the seasoned cyclists in my study of twenty-two men aged fifty to eighty-four have percent body fat values similar to world-class endurance athletes (4-15%), blood pressure in the normal range (100-120 over 60-80), and resting heart rates between forty and fifty beats per minute. They ride forty to 100 miles three to seven days a week from spring through late fall, but less often and far in the winter months. Each year they cover up to 15,000 miles.
The cyclists in my study group who do less and have fewer years of experience tend to have slightly less favorable health indicators but they are still comparable to those of much younger men. I have interacted with hundreds of older cyclists over the years and can affirm that this is true of the general cycling population, especially the cyclists who continue to ride up mountain passes. When I began this study in 2002 and 2003, I focused on men because although by then there were many women on the road none in my area had been riding for decades. Lately, I have been talking to more women, but the comments in this article are from the initial group of men.
The positive effects of all levels of endurance exercise are well-documented. My small study supports the idea that physical activity is especially beneficial if carried out with constancy and over many years. There is evidence from laboratory animals that exercising in the company of others provides greater physical and mental health benefits than exercising alone. My research supports this idea, and indicates that exercising outdoors may be more effective than indoor activity in promoting psychological wellbeing. The fact that lifelong training contributes to psychophysical health is recognized by the cyclists themselves, one of whom says, “la vecchiaia si costruisce nella gioventu” (“old age is built in youth”).