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How Cycling Affects Your Brain

By Andrea Champredonde

Lots of people cycle just for fun or as part of a new exercise regime to build muscle tone, assist in weight loss or improve cardiovascular health. But these are just a few of the physiological benefits of riding. Did you know it’s also great for your mental health?

Scientific studies show a correlation between cycling and how it contributes to our mental health, too. It only takes about 30 minutes on a bike per day. I know I feel better when I get out and ride. But why? What exactly happens to our brains as we pedal? Let’s find out.

Improve your mood

Next time you’re feeling ornery, grab a bike and get pedalling. It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Jumping on an indoor trainer is also effective. No matter where or how you ride, the vital thing is to get the heart pumping and the blood flowing.

Our bodies naturally contain levels of a fatty acid neurotransmitter called anandamide that carries nerve impulses between nerves or to a muscle or gland as part of our endocannabinoid system. You may have caught the word “cannabinoid” in the last sentence. Does that sound like something else you might have heard of?

Everyone is born with cannabinoid receptors. Yep, the same ones that react to tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC, found in cannabis-based compounds such as marijuana. Anandamide in our blood attaches to these same receptors. Cycling increases the amount of anandamide in our system, creating a physiological response.

The non-cycling public may call this response a “runner’s high”. But in our case, it’s a “cycling high”; a physical euphoria that improves our mood, makes us feel good, and boosts our mental health. Small amounts of anandamide are also found in chocolate, which explains why we crave it. Even a nibble is satisfying. Chocolate is delicious but cycling is inherently better for you.

Cycling is an excellent practice to include in your self-care routine as it provides a way to keep (or get) yourself in shape while having fun and gaining confidence from cultivating a new skill. © Profimedia

Slow brain ageing

Did you know your brain is a muscle? And just like any other muscle, it gets stronger with exercise. When you cycle, you’re actually bolstering your brain’s ability to regrow neurons and create new connections between them. And as you ride your bike, you also increase the protein production needed to create new brain cells, up to three times as much as a sedentary person.

Certain studies have even shown that cycling slows down the ageing process by up to five years. Its positive effects resist the natural deterioration of brain function as we mature. Riding a bike has been shown to have a remarkable effect on people with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the hippocampus, which controls emotions and memory.

Just a few minutes of biking per day slows down the consequences of this degenerative condition by stimulating our brain the same way medication would, encouraging growth in place of the progressive atrophy it causes.

Relieve anxiety, depression and increase self-esteem

Feeling down? A quick spin does wonders. Cycling increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brains. Both are neurotransmitters that play an important role in how we feel and deal with stress. People who suffer from depression ordinarily lack proper levels of these two components, something scientific research has linked to poor mental health.

Besides helping to relieve depression and anxiety, cycling improves your self-esteem and general happiness too. You gain confidence as you progress and see the difference in how your clothes fit. In addition, as we pedal, our bodies produce hormones, endorphins, and those important cannabinoids we covered earlier. All of which contribute to the cycling high we feel post exercise.

Riding is something you can do on your own or with friends and family. Either way, getting on the bike makes you focus on something else other than the problems on your mind. Revel in the accomplishment of completing a ride while doing something positive for your health and promoting the brain’s ability to handle negative stress.

Accessible to everyone

Cycling is good for your brain! And possibly the best thing about turning the cranks for mental health is that it’s accessible to everyone. It’s easy to find a bike to ride through today’s bike-share programmes or just borrow one from a friend or family member.

Adult tricycles are a perfect choice for more mature riders; or try an e-bike, a hand cycle or a recumbent to get started. If you aren’t motivated to ride alone, cycling is a very social activity with organised rides of different levels available through social media, local clubs or bike shops.

The bike you ride doesn’t need to be new or fancy, just functional and a size you can ride safely. You can invest in a new one if you find that the holistic health benefits of riding are for you. And even then, there are plenty of used bikes on the market. It doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg to get into the sport to improve your mental health.

Don’t feel intimidated, thinking you have to ride fast, either. You don’t. Enjoy yourself and respect your limits. There are plenty of cyclists like you who would love to meet other like-minded riders. You might even meet your significant other. Who knows? The bottom line is cycling is an excellent activity that will help you grow your brain, feel and sleep better.

How much cycling do you need to do? 30-60 minutes of steady riding a few times a week is a good place to start. If you’re already commuting to work, doing a group ride or getting out on the weekend with the family, you’re already on your way. When in doubt or if you have an existing or secondary health issue, consult with your doctor to craft a safe programme tailored to your needs. The cycling community looks forward to you joining us on the road to a healthy brain and better mental health.