Cyclists can reel off a whole host of well-known physical benefits that riding a bike can bring – lowering blood pressure, improving cardio-vascular capacity, managing weight, building muscle, improving cholesterol levels and the all-round fitness that cycling brings. But less well-known are the benefits to your mental health from a life on two wheels. Recent studies have shown that regular cycling can help build a better brain, both structurally and functionally.
Cycling can boost your memory and reasoning
All aerobic exercise can be good for the brain. It helps to maintain blood flow to the organ, providing it with a supply of nutrients and oxygen. People who exercise regularly often find that their judgement, learning and thinking remains sharp as they age. But it's not just older people who benefit from this link between physical exercise and brain function – even youngsters claim that a bike ride can help their thought processes.
A 2013 study had a group of healthy young men pedal a stationary bike at a moderate pace for 30 minutes. The group completed a series of tests before and after the exercise. The study found that after their 30 minute pedal they scored higher on memory, planning and reasoning and were able to complete the tests quicker than before the exercise.
Cycling can improve your brain power
There's a good reason why studies show that our mental skills are improved after a bike ride - it's all to do with the 'white matter' in our brains. You will have heard about grey matter, but white matter, found beneath the brain surface, acts as a conduit linking different regions of the brain together - like a cerebral subway system.
Evidence from a 2014 Dutch study over a six month period showed that healthy people who regularly pedalled increased the integrity of their white matter - helping their brains function more smoothly.
Raise your levels of BDNF
Raise what? BDNF stands for Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. These are molecules in the brain that studies believe help maintain existing neurons and create new ones. It supports healthy brain function and can help to prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
It's well known that exercise can increase BDNF levels and a 2015 study from Taiwan using stationary bikes confirmed this. Volunteers took regular exercise on the bikes over a three-month period and all saw their BDNF levels rise.
Cycling can enhance your well-being
We all know that regular physical activity helps combat stress, depression and anxiety. Cycling is one such exercise – a Japanese study from 2013 showed that subjects pedalling a bike for 15 minutes saw their level of a stress hormone, cortisol, reduced.
These effects are amplified by cycling outdoors close to nature. Spending time in the natural environment can also reduce stress, anxiety and depression, so the combination of physical activity and being outdoors that cycling brings is a win-win!