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Cycling Will Save The World: Reason #463

January 2, 2013

So it’s not only good for your health, it’s good for your brain.

No surprise here, of course, or for anyone who is a devoted cyclist, and equates a good ride with maintaining sanity.

But it is pretty impressive when you take a look at the evident mental benefits:

Several studies have shown that exercises including cycling make us smarter. Danish scientists who set out to measure the benefits of breakfast and lunch among children found diet helped but that the way pupils travelled to school was far more significant. Those who cycled or walked performed better in tests than those who had travelled by car or public transport, the scientists reported last month. Another study by the University of California in Los Angeles showed that old people who were most active had 5 per cent more grey matter than those who were least active, reducing their risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

But what is about cycling that leads me to believe it has a peculiar effect? John Ratey is a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He can’t point to a specific reason but says he has seen patients whose severe depression has all but disappeared after they started to cycle.

Rhythm may explain some of the effects. “Think about it evolutionarily for a minute,” he says. “When we had to perform physically, those who could find an altered state and not experience the pain or a drag on endurance would have been at an advantage. Cycling is also increasing a lot of the chemistry in your brain that make you feel peaceful and calm.”

At the same time, the focus required to operate a bicycle, and for example, to negotiate a junction or jostle for space in a race, can be a powerful medicine. Dr Ratey cites a study his department is currently conducting. More than 20 pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are expected to show improved symptoms after a course of cycling.

The link between cycling and ADHD is well established. It’s “like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” Dr Ratey says. Ritalin is a stimulant commonly used to treat ADHD in children by boosting levels of neural transmitters. Exercise can achieve the same effect, but not all exercise is equal.

In a German study involving 115 students at a sports academy, half the group did activities such as cycling that involved complex co-ordinated movements. The rest performed simpler exercises with the same aerobic demands. Both groups did better than they had in concentration tests, but the “complex” group did a lot better.

Cycling has even been shown to change the structure of the brain. In 2003, Dr Jay Alberts, a neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute in Ohio, rode a tandem bicycle across the state with a friend who has Parkinson’s to raise awareness of the disease. To the surprise of both riders, the patient showed significant improvements.

Dr Alberts conducted an experiment, the results of which were reported last month. He scanned the brains of 26 Parkinson’s patients during and a month after an eight-week exercise programme using stationary bikes.

Half the patients were allowed to ride at their own pace, while the others were pushed incrementally harder, just as the scientist’s tandem companion had been. All patients improved and the “tandem” group showed significant increases in connectivity between areas of grey matter responsible for motor ability. Cycling, and cycling harder, was helping to heal their brains.

I’d say this certainly qualifies as severe mental stimulation (saw this on the plane home this week; ridiculous in most respects, though redeemed entirely by the sheer pleasure of watching the riding sequences):

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