People who bicycle for their health can often rattle off several good reasons: lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, managing their weight and reducing their risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes, to name a few. But what many forget—or never knew—is that pedaling a bike also helps build a better brain, structurally and functionally.
Scientists studying the psychological effects of physical activity sometimes ask volunteers to ride a bicycle outdoors for a set time or, more commonly, to pedal a stationary bike indoors. Here’s what recent studies show about the benefits of cycling for cognitive health and emotional well-being.
Your Brain on Cycling: Better Connectivity
You hear more about gray matter in the brain, but white matter matters, too. White matter, found mostly beneath the brain’s surface, has been likened to a subway system connecting different regions of the brain. A breakdown in this system can slow thinking and lead to other cognitive deficits. Fortunately, there’s evidence that practicing a motor skill, such as repeatedly punching in karate, helps keep the system running smoothly.
The latest evidence comes from a study of healthy individuals and schizophrenia patients, half of whom were randomly chosen for a six-month exercise program using stationary bikes. The study was conducted in the Netherlands, where bike riding is ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the added practice made a difference. Brain scans showed that practicing pedaling on a regular basis increased the integrity of white matter fiber tracts in both healthy and schizophrenic brains.
Another Bicycling Byproduct: More BDNF
From a molecular standpoint, a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) may be a key middleman in the relationship between physical activity and brain health. BDNF helps maintain existing neurons and create new ones. In addition to supporting healthy brain function, BDNF helps ward off certain neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s well established that exercise can beef up BDNF levels.
A recent study included volunteers with either type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome—a cluster of health conditions, such as elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, which increase the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke. After three months of regular exercise on a stationary bike, their BDNF levels were higher.
Pedal-Powered Memory and Reasoning
Aerobic exercise is good for the brain in other ways as well. For instance, it helps maintain adequate blood flow to the brain, which supplies the metabolically rapacious organ with a steady stream of oxygen and nutrients. This may be one reason why regular physical activity helps keep thinking, learning and judgment sharp as people age.
But you don’t have to wait for your AARP card to reap these rewards. Even younger adults often claim that a bike ride helps shift their thinking into high gear—and research backs them up. In one small study, healthy, young men pedaled a stationary bike at moderate intensity for 30 minutes. They also completed a series of cognitive tests before and afterward. After cycling, they scored higher on memory, reasoning and planning, and they were able to finish the tests more rapidly than before.
The Bike Path to Relaxation and Well-Being
Study after study has shown that regular physical activity helps prevent or relieve stress, anxiety and depression. One study focused on people with depression that was being treated with antidepressants. After pedaling a stationary bike for just 15 minutes, their level of cortisol, a stress hormone, declined.
Cycling outdoors in natural surroundings only magnifies these benefits. That’s because spending time in nature can, in itself, reduce stress and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. There’s also evidence that “green exercise” can boost enjoyment and motivation.
Perhaps the most creative study of this effect in cyclists was, ironically, conducted entirely indoors—a choice made in order to better control the study environment. Volunteers pedaled a stationary bike while watching a five-minute video of a green, leafy cycling trail. Three forms of the video were shown: unedited, edited to look red and edited to look gray. After viewing the unedited green version, the volunteers reported a less negative mood overall. They also said that cycling felt like less work, even though their heart rate and breathing stayed the same for all conditions.
But don’t take the scientists’ word for it. Do your own experiment. Grab a bike, slap on a helmet and go for a spin around your local park or down a country trail. Then leave a comment here to let us know what you discover.