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Cycling May Help Keep Your Mind in Gear

Biking offers a head-to-toe workout

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It’s awe-inspiring to watch Tour de France cyclists zoom through the Alps like they have wings. But cycling’s many health benefits aren’t reserved for elite athletes.

Biking is one of the most versatile forms of exercise, offering a workout for all fitness levels that’s gentle on your joints. You can cycle outdoors or inside on a stationary bike. Like other forms of aerobic activity, biking can strengthen your heart, lungs and muscles. Research suggests it also may benefit your brain.

One study recruited 100 people ages 50 to 83 who were not cyclists. Some cycled outdoors three times a week using either a regular bicycle or an e-bike (with an electric motor that can assist with pedaling), and others did not. The cyclers performed better on some measures of the brain’s executive function than those who didn’t cycle, researchers reported in PLoS ONE in 2019. Executive function includes mental skills such as organization, planning and flexible thinking.

Surprised that e-bikes and ordinary bikes showed similar benefits? True, e-bikes can require less effort, but that doesn’t mean you’re cheating. In fact, on average, the e-bike riders in the study spent more time cycling during the week than their regular-bike counterparts. The e-bikes had five settings that corresponded to varying levels of electrical assistance, from “off” to “turbo,” so riders could adjust their level of exertion. The researchers theorized that this may have encouraged the e-bike riders to ride more. They also noted that both groups of riders may have benefited from being outdoors.

Indoor cycling on a stationary bike — at a gym or in the comfort of home — offers potential brain benefits too. After a single 30-minute workout on a stationary bike, 26 healthy adults ages 55 to 85 completed a cognitive quiz while undergoing a brain scan known as an fMRI. On another day, they were quizzed and scanned after spending 30 minutes resting. The post-cycling scans showed greater activity in the hippocampus, the brain’s key memory region, compared with the post-resting scans, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

The study results suggest that exercise may improve semantic memory — the ability to recall common names and similar information — which is one of the first types of memory to dip as people age. “Over the years… the hippocampus eventually shrinks,” says study author J. Carson Smith, director of the Exercise for Brain Health Laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Like other forms of aerobic exercise, cycling may also increase the activity of chemical messengers like dopamine, involved in memory, mood and attention, as well as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which some scientists refer to as “fertilizer for the brain” because it promotes the growth and maintenance of brain cells. “These changes are going on within the hippocampus immediately after exercise, even with just one session,” Smith says.

To get cycling’s potential brain and other health benefits, make it a part of your weekly routine. National guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week. If you’ve been inactive, talk with your doctor first, and consider starting with 5 or 10 minutes, working up to 30 minutes.

“People should do whatever they’re able and willing to do,” Smith says. In other words, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just hop on your bike — inside or outside, manual or electric — and start spinning.

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