Medical research has shown that people’s hearts actually beat the fastest before the big hill, especially on hyped roller coasters such as The Behemoth at Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan, Ont.
By Dr. James Aw
Next Monday in Toronto, people will begin paying $175 to go for a walk. The total distance travelled amounts to only 150 metres, but will leave participants short of breath. It’ll increase their heart rates and elevate their blood pressure. And from a medical perspective, it may be just what their bodies need.
The “walk” is the CN Tower’s EdgeWalk, a tour around the observation pod’s outer edge. Located 356 metres (110 storeys) above the ground, the track that supports participants does not feature protective rails. Instead, the EdgeWalkers are protected by a tether connected to an elevated superstructure, and participants will be able to lean over the track’s edge — with nothing below them but air.
Summer’s the season for thrills, whether it’s EdgeWalk, the Pacific National Exhibition’s new Atmosfear, a revolving swing ride that spins riders at 70 km/h, 66 metres above the ground, or rides at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure, home to the world’s highest roller coaster, which has a peak of 139 metres and a top speed of 206 km/h. For some, this raises questions: Who in their right minds goes in for these sorts of attractions, and what are the medical effects of thrill-seeking behaviour?
Academia has a name for people drawn to these experiences: They’re called sensation seekers, a group much more likely to get into trouble with risky activities or aggressive and addictive behaviours, such as those involving drugs and alcohol. Sensation seeking has been defined as the need for “varied, novel, complex and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”
At the centre of it all is the brain’s dopamine system, which is integral to the high experienced after the consumption of a drug such as cocaine, as well as the euphoria that follows something like EdgeWalk .
Last year, the academic journal Psychological Science caused a stir when it published a study linking sensation-seeking behaviour to mutations in genes that regulate dopamine activity. This excited researchers, since the ability to identify sensation seekers early would presumably make it easier to guide them away from drugs and alcohol. “Not everyone who’s high on sensation seeking becomes a drug addict,” said the study’s lead author, Jaime Derringer, a PhD candidate in the psychology department at the University of Minnesota. “They may become an Army Ranger or an artist. It’s all in how you channel it.”
The problem? Derringer’s conclusions were later discredited by Australian researchers due to a step that was missed in the study’s methodology. Meanwhile, other researchers are establishing that sensation seeking behaviour can change over time — suggesting the trait isn’t exclusively genetic, or even a biological personality trait. A longitudinal study published last year in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence followed 868 youths through grades six to eight. It ranked the kids according to the extent they sought sensation. The low and the high groups stayed stable, but the middle group of about 60% of study participants experienced significant changes in its sensation-seeking behaviour. My own experience bears out the changing nature of sensation seeking. Years ago, I’d have been classified an adrenalin junkie. I skied off-piste on Mont Blanc, fell down a cliff at Whistler and deep-sea dove among shipwrecks. That old self might have considered doing EdgeWalk, but then I matured and became a father.
Perhaps I’m missing out. Medical professionals knew such rides elevated heart rates. But some of us may not have suspected the extent of the elevation until researchers wrote in 2007 about a fascinating study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They wired up riders of Germany’s Expedition GeForce roller coaster with portable electrocardiogram sets. Although the GeForce has a relatively paltry top speed of 120 km/h, heart rates increased from a before-ride average of 89 beats per minute to an intra-ride peak of 155 beats per minute. The fascinating thing? The largest increase happened before that first initial drop, when, researchers wrote, “speed was low and there were no significant acceleration forces, suggesting a contributing role of emotional stress.” In other words, the part of the ride that most elevated heart rates wasn’t the scary drop, but the anticipation of the scary drop.
So, there’s a reason for all those warnings suggesting that pregnant women and those with heart conditions avoid thrill rides. Sudden jolts of a “fight or flight response” may be hard on some. But if you make it through the experience, a thrill ride can actually have some beneficial effects. The winner of last year’s tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel Prize for medicine was a Dutch study that took 25 female sufferers of severe asthma on a series of roller coaster rides. Researchers discovered the asthmatic shortness of breath known as dyspnea tended to be lower in the women amid the euphoria that followed the roller coaster rides. Other types of thrill rides could have similar effects. In that way, it’s similar to sports or exercise — short-term stress that helps you relax in the long run.
I’m not suggesting a 65-year-old couch potato should sign up for EdgeWalk. Thrill rides like roller coasters have been linked to heart and neurological events in those who are predisposed. But for those of us who are active and in good shape, something like EdgeWalk may be just the right dose of positive stress. Plus there’s that view of Toronto. Go for it!
• Dr. James Aw is the medical director of the Medcan Clinic, a leading private health clinic in Toronto. For more information, visit medcan.com.
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