This post is about the scientific proof that cycling boosts your brain function. People who cycle often do so to boost their physical health, such as by improving cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart diseases, and lowering blood pressure. But it’s exciting to learn that cycling also helps to build a better brain, both functionally and structurally. Here’s what science says about the cognitive benefits of pedaling.
Brain Boost #1: Cycling Makes Your Brain Grow
Cycling is like fertilizer for your brain. When you pedal, you make the nerve cells more active than they were. As the neurons fire away, they boost the production of Noggin (a protein in the brain) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These two compounds are responsible for the formation of new brain cells. This triples the output of neurons; thus building your brain.
Besides promoting the production of new neurons, BDNF also supports healthy brain function and keeps some neurological diseases at bay, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Research published in the Journal of Diabetes Complications about participants with either metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes confirms this (a metabolic syndrome is a condition that raises the risk of developing stroke, diabetes, and heart diseases). The volunteers were put on a regular cycling schedule and monitored closely. After three months, their BDNF levels were found to have increased.
Brain Boost #2: Cycling Enhances Brain Connectivity
All the hours you spend spinning the pedals don’t only work on your quads, but also on your gray matter. When the blood vessels in your brain receive an improved supply of nutrients and oxygen, they work better.
Although we hear a lot about gray matter, white matter also matters! White matter is usually on the lower side of the brain’s surface. It has been compared to a subway system that links up various parts of the brain. A breakdown of the functioning of this system results in slow thinking and other cognitive deficits. Thankfully, science shows that practicing a motor skill like riding a bicycle can improve brain performance.
A study published in the Schizophrenia Bulletin reported research that was conducted on schizophrenia patients and healthy individuals. The research was conducted in the Netherlands, where bike riding is the norm for most people. Half of the subjects were put on a six-month regime of pedaling stationary bikes.
Even though it was indoors and many of the participants already did some cycling, the added pedaling made a huge difference. Brain scans on the subjects who were pedaling stationary bikes showed enhanced integrity of white matter fibers, in both schizophrenic and healthy brains.
Brain Boost #3: Cycling Enhances Memory and Reasoning
Aerobic exercises are beneficial to the brain in many ways. For instance, they help in maintaining sufficient blood flow to the brain, thus supplying it with a steady stream of nutrients and oxygen. Regular cycling helps with learning, judgment, and thinking – some of the same benefits that are claimed, for example, by products such as Optimind, that claim to enhance focus, energy and attention while nourishing your brain.
In a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, a group of healthy, young men were asked to pedal a bike for 30 minutes. They completed a set of cognitive tests before the cycling session and after the cycling session. They did better after cycling than they did before cycling. They scored well in reasoning, planning, and memory. The subjects also completed the tests faster after exercising than before exercising.
Brain Boost #4: Cycling Boosts Self-Esteem
“What we think about ourselves is probably the central concept in our conscious lives.”
Whether you agree with this notion or not, it would be difficult to disagree that your self-perception is crucial to your overall satisfaction and happiness. Because of this, social media can cause problems with self-esteem. Many people feel challenged by other people’s profiles, or want to be like them. In the process, they can lose their sense of who they themselves really are. If you are caught up in the Instagram or Facebook blues, cycling can help.
In an analysis of the impact of physical activity on self-esteem, Duncan and Eyre concluded that the former has positive effects on the latter. When carrying out the study, the researchers found that the effects were not dependent on the duration and intensity of physical activity. So, a little cruising on your bike to and from work can have a substantial overall impact on your self-esteem!
Brain Boost #5: Cycling Fights Depression
Cycling is an effective anti-depressant. It releases hormones known as serotonin and dopamine. Although the specific mechanism of how it does this is still unclear, studies show that pedaling for 30 minutes daily is effective for people with depression.
A long-term study of volunteers from Alameda County in California showed that high levels of physical activity like cycling results in a lowered risk of developing clinical depression. The results remain unaltered even when other factors such as social supports and socioeconomic status come into play. Unlike many other treatments for depression, such as medications, cycling does not have any adverse effects.
From this research (and a wealth of similar studies), it is apparent that cycling is very good for your brain. We hope that this post on five ways that cycling can boost your brain function will inspire you to get on your bike more often. Thinking about all of these cognitive benefits of cycling has definitely inspired us. See you (clearly!) on the bike path!
Sources Used in this Post
Camacho et al. 15 July 1991. Physical Activity and Depression: Evidence from the Alameda County Study. Terry C. Camacho, Robert E. Roberts, Nancy B. Lazarus, George A. Kaplan, Richard D. Cohen. American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 134, Issue 2, 15 July 1991, Pages 220–231, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a116074 .
Duncan, Michael J. and Emma L.J. Eyre. Physical Activity and Self-Esteem. In Lane, Andrew M. Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Svatkova, A. et al. Physical Exercise Keeps the Brain Connected: Biking Increases White Matter Integrity in Patients With Schizophrenia and Healthy Controls. Alena Svatkova , René C W Mandl, Thomas W Scheewe, Wiepke Cahn, René S Kahn, Hilleke E Hulshoff Pol.
Thanks to Our Guest Poster, Samantha Rosario!
Samantha Rosario is a writer for Healthy Heroics, a mother, and a resident of the greatest city in the world, NYC. When not working at a Manhattan publishing house, she’s spending time with her family or putting pen to paper for her own personal pursuits.
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