As if you needed more reasons to ride! – By Molly Hurford
You already know cycling is great for your physical fitness. But did you know it also has profound effects on your brain? We did some digging and chatted with experts to find out exactly how.
Staves Off Depression
“Clearly exercise is beneficial for mental health, and the area that we have the strongest evidence in is depression,” explains Brandon Alderman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise psychophysiology at Rutgers University in the US. A recent study suggests that physical activity leads to nearly the same neurophysiological changes as antidepressants. A review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at 25 studies, all of which showed that exercise plays a vital in maintaining good mental health and preventing the onset of depression later in life.
Calms Your Mind
“Over the past two years, we’ve been conducting a large study looking at aerobic exercise and meditation,” Alderman says. Test subjects in the study did a combo of meditation and exercise, in the form of spinning on a stationary bike followed by a short meditation session. Then Alderman and his team analysed the effects on their mental well-being.
The outcome was exactly what he expected: Subjects moved from clinical to nonclinical levels of depression. “That’s huge,” Alderman says, “and it happened in just eight weeks.”
Think about a typical ride and everything that goes through your head, consciously or unconsciously: how to negotiate that gravelly corner, bunny hop that log, or navigate your way home on unfamiliar roads. It’s like doing Sudoko, but at warp speed—which is great for keeping your brain healthy. “When you’re on a road bike, you’re more likely to try a new route so you have something novel in the environment. If you’re mountain biking, you have to stay alert, and that’s really wonderful,” Alderman says.
So how does that make you smarter? Simple. Using your brain in these different ways while riding, Alderman explains, “results in increased cognitive control, and stimulates the parts [of the brain] that regulate executive function, decision making, things like that.”
This isn’t a new idea, by any stretch: work done by Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois in 2007 showed that exercise boosts brainpower and helps to stave off Alzheimer’s in older people, while parallel work being done at the University of Georgia by Phil Tomporowski showed that kids are even more positively impacted—and that exercise can help control issues like ADD.
Makes You Sexier
One study in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that when men performed regular, moderate exercise, they experienced more and better sex than men who did not exercise.
Then in 2004, a study at the University of Arkansas found that men and women with self-proclaimed higher fitness levels believed that they had above-average sexual desirability.
Most recently, in 2012, a University of Texas study reported that exercise—20 minutes of cycling, in this case—increases genital arousal in women, even when sensory nerves were suppressed by antidepressants.
Makes You Friendlier
Whether you hit a spin class or head to the trails with a buddy or two, riding a bike can keep your social life active. A recent study at the University of Toronto showed that teams playing group sports had better overall mental health and less stress. “We suspect it might be due to school sport providing adolescents with opportunities to bond with other students, feel connected to their school, interact with their peers and coaches, thus, really providing a social and active environment,” lead author Catherine M. Sabiston, Ph.D. explained. Sounds a lot like the benefits of joining a cycling club, doesn’t it?
“One key aspect for brain health is that you need to have a social life,” Alderman says. “You need to socialise with other people. I think when people are depressed, they don’t get out, they don’t do anything. It impacts their confidence and self-esteem. And if you exercise, you get out, and you have an opportunity to interact with other people, especially if they exercise outside.”