By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
When Chris Figureida leaves Deadhorse, Alaska, on Wednesday on a 3,000-mile bicycle trip to San Diego, he’ll share the lonely road with moose, musk oxen and the occasional grizzly bear.
Yet some of his best adventures will take place indoors. Throughout his 78-day trip, Chris will pull off the road, walk his Trek 520 bicycle into a middle school and give a gym full of kids a first-person lesson in exercise, nutrition and heart health.
“I never tell the kids what to do … I just try to be a real-life example of the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle,” said the 36-year-old. “I’m trying to inspire them to make a difference, starting with themselves.”
As a two-wheeled, cross-country ambassador for the American Heart Association, he’s inspired more than 70,000 students during hundreds of school presentations over the past decade.
The roots of Chris’ Cycle for Heart mission began in Africa in 2006, where he’d traveled as part of his quest to become a professional mountain climber. While in Kenya, he visited a camp devoted to eradicating HIV/AIDS and was left speechless by all the volunteers who’d traveled from around the world to help.
“These people had given up their family, friends and careers to volunteer their time … I remember feeling like half a person standing next to them,” said Chris. “At the time, I was 25, and at that age, all you’re thinking about is yourself. But I came back from that trip thinking, ‘What can I do to help people?’”
He found his purpose at his local AHA chapter near Ventura, California, where he works as a theatrical prop builder and lives with his wife, pediatrician Alison Shuman. Inspired by a study on rising obesity rates among children, Chris partnered with the AHA to teach students about healthy living during a series of cross-country cycling trips.
“Chris literally will let nothing stand in his way when it comes to trying to make a difference for these kids,” Alison said. “As a pediatrician, I can’t think of a more important goal than to improve the health of our children. Whatever it takes to do that is worth the effort.”
Speaking in school gyms and classrooms in the United States, Canada and Africa, he gets kids flexing their biceps to show how the heart is similar to their arm muscles. He has them run in place and then teaches them how to measure their heart rate. He quizzes them about their favorite fruits and vegetables and explains how, each day, his body burns up to 5,000 calories — the equivalent of eating five foot-long sub sandwiches.
“I like to joke that I can eat a pint of ice cream a night and still lose one pound a week because I’m burning so many calories cycling,” he said.
He doesn’t recommend kids try to follow his own pedal steps, admitting that his cross-country treks are “very extreme.” But he does spread the gospel of regular exercise.
“In a modern non-agrarian society, we have to supplement something into our lifestyle that keeps us active,” he said. “Nutrition is important, but you can’t have nutrition without exercise.”
Cycling is one of the best forms of exercise, he said, but safety is essential — especially in a world full of increasingly distracted drivers.
He tells students about the importance of wearing a helmet and bright clothing and never cycling with headphones or ear buds. “You’ve got to be able to hear the traffic coming up behind you,” he said. “You can’t take that risk.”
Granted, he’s found himself in plenty of risky situations during his epic bike journeys, including being paralyzed by heatstroke for hours after cycling in 131-degree heat in Africa. He talks about enduring a long, scary night in the snowy tundra of Canada after running out of food: As he sat weak and helpless inside his tent, a pack of howling wolves wandered nearby.
And then there were the alligators — dozens of them, crawling on the side of the road as he biked through the Everglades in southern Florida.
“I nearly ran over one’s tail,” Chris said. “I had to ride down the middle of the road for the next 40 miles because they were everywhere — and some of them were 10 or 15 feet long.”
Yet for all his breathtaking adventures in extreme conditions, Chris gets equally excited while talking about the people he’s met during his journeys.
When he’s not on the road or at a school, he often brings his bicycle indoors to meet with government officials and advocate for CPR training in schools, bike-friendly streets and other health initiatives.
“I’ve seen 100 senators in suits stop working on a budget to come over and tell me about the time they rode down to the river on their bike to fish with their buddies,” Chris said. “It’s an amazing focal point and a great tool: Everyone’s ridden a bicycle, so everyone can relate to it.”