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. A recent study at the University of Bern suggests that physical activity leads to nearly the same neurophysiologic changes as antidepressants.
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 analyzed 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 Sudoku, but at warp speed—which is great for keeping your brain healthy.
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 Friendlier
“One key aspect for brain health is that you need to have a social life,” Alderman says. “You need to socialize 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.”
Commit to a Better You
Ready to make some lasting changes? Start small with something like a ride streak—simply put, the act of getting after it every day, no matter what.