Think piece: the bike and the brain

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There are countless ways in which the medical profession is using the power of pedalling to help with dementia, depression and ADHD. Emily Chappell finds out more…

As I pedalled across the rolling hills of central China one day, a memory resurfaced in my mind of an Iranian tea stall where I’d bought my breakfast nine months before. There had been nothing remarkable about this tea stall, which I now recalled in vivid detail.

What fascinated me about the re-emergence of the memory was that it had remained tucked away in the recesses of my mind. If you’d asked me the previous day where I’d had breakfast that morning in Iran, I doubt I could have told you. So, why had this memory suddenly returned?

I’ve often speculated about the seemingly random mental connections my brain makes when I’m riding my bike. But I never investigated the relationship between cycling, science and the brain – until now.

It’s only when I speak to Dr Fang Yu, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, that I discover how significant the connection is between cycling and cognitive ability. Dr Yu began her career as a nurse in China, but moved to the University of Pennsylvania to work with dementia patients for her postgrad. Now Dr Yu works with people towards the end of their lives, helping to slow – and sometimes temporarily halt – the cognitive decline that typically comes with old age.

It was at Pennsylvania that she discovered patients with Alzheimer’s respond to rehabilitation involving aerobic exercise. In fact, many showed improved cognition, with her study proving that, over a six-month period, cognition stayed the same in a group of Alzheimer’s patients who rode stationary bikes for 150 minutes per week. Usually, it would have declined by three points.

I ask Dr Yu if she has any idea of what’s going on behind the scenes here. Have scientists discovered exactly how cycling improves our mental ability? She tells me they have a pretty good idea thanks to research that has shown that exercise boosts a protein called brain-deprived neuropathic factor (BDNF). BDNF helps to preserve existing neurons and encourages more to generate. (It was initially believed that humans are born with their full complement of neurons, and cannot grow more.) It has also been proved that regular aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume (put simply, it makes the brain bigger), helping to slow the decline in memory function that is a natural part of aging.

“There is a biological process going on that underpins cognitive function,” explains Dr Yu. “What we do physically affects what we’re able to do mentally.”

I remember my twenties – all those years I spent trying to launch an academic career. It was only once I started riding my bike for a living that my intellect really took flight and I became a writer. Was it all that cycling that altered my brain chemistry and made it possible?

Riding out depression
Any cyclist knows that riding a bike has the ability to make us feel better, think better, work better, and get on better with the people who share our lives. I often go for a head-clearing ride when I’m struggling with a paragraph. And David Wood – who oversees a project called Riding For Focus, which provides bikes, training and support to get US middle school students cycling during their school day – admits that his wife occasionally sends him out on his bike when he’s getting difficult to live with.

Riding For Focus was developed by The Specialized Foundation, for which Wood is Director of Program Management. Alongside RFF, the Foundation has partnered with a team at Stanford Medical School “to better understand the effects of cycling on brain function and cognition in children with ADHD”. Their aim is to eventually incorporate cycling into the standard treatment programme for the disorder, and reduce dependence on drugs like Ritalin.

Mike Sinyard, the CEO of Specialized, had always managed his own ADHD symptoms – and latterly his son’s – with cycling, and set up the foundation after reading an article in Bicycling Magazine (‘Riding Is My Ritalin’), which explained some of the brain chemistry behind his self-medication. Apparently, it’s all about neurotransmitters.

Going for a bike ride can have the same effect as a dose of Prozac and Ritalin

The best-known neurotransmitters are endorphins – those happy chemicals responsible for the rush of euphoria we often experience at the end of a hard ride. But, there’s much more going on. John J. Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, suggests that going for a bike ride can have the same effect as a small dose of Prozac and Ritalin.

Cycling stimulates production of endorphins and serotonin, which give us the ‘Prozac effect’, alongside two lesser-known neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine. They help relay signals to and from the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that affects movement, coordination, attention and learning.

So, there’s a scientific explanation for the fact that after a long bike ride I feel more clear-headed, happier, and better able to cope with life’s challenges. But, there’s still a question nagging at me.

Is cycling always the panacea we like to think it is? When I started cycling regularly in 2006, I immediately noticed an improvement in my mental health. But over the years I’ve continued to go through periods of depression, particularly in the wake of one of my long tours or races [such as the 3,800km Transcontinental Race, where Emily was the first female finisher in 2016].

If cycling really does have the effects on the brain that science claims, surely full-time professional cyclists would be the happiest, calmest people in the world? Instead, there are a lot of stories to the contrary, particularly in the pro world.

Taking cycling to extremes
Tour de France winner Luis Ocaña killed himself aged 48. Hugo Koblet reportedly drove his car into a tree. Marco Pantani destroyed himself with drugs. Graeme Obree, the Scottish amateur cyclist who twice broke the hour record in the 1990s, survived three suicide attempts, and has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

When you’re cycling, there’s a liberation that the bike brings – not just physically, but mentally

In a 2015 interview with Cycling Weekly, Obree pointed out a troubling link between low mood and high achievement.

“The most driven achieve the most amount of significance,” he said. “But, whatever it is, the nuclear reaction that drives them on is also the thing that leaves them susceptible to being depressed.”

So, perhaps cycling is a drug like any other. Take it to extremes and the effects of those endorphins could become lessened, so you need more and more to attain the stress-busting buzz.

“That endorphin dump right after a workout becomes addictive,” admits David Wood, recalling his time in the Marine Corps, “but if you can incorporate cycling into daily life – you know, ‘everything in moderation,’ as my grandfather used to say – then it can be healthy.”

Sarah Strong, a writer and mental health activist in London, points out the manifold therapeutic benefits of cycling for people with depression.“It’s very easy to isolate yourself,” she says, telling me about her own experiences of depression, and the ‘mind games’ involved in trying to leave the house when you’re at a low ebb. “But, when you’re riding around the Kent lanes, you feel the wind on your face, the air on your skin, you take in the seasons, a wave from another cyclist – there’s a liberation that the bike brings, not just physically but mentally.”

Strong is bringing the conversation about cycling and mental health into a more public arena and hosted a ‘cycling and mental health’ evening at Look Mum No Hands! in London to provide a platform for discussion. She was taken aback when more than 100 people showed up.

Pedal therapy
It’s clear that the zeitgeist is shifting – at least in the cycling community – and depression is beginning to lose its stigma, becoming something people can discuss openly. Strong has a theory as to why the cycling community is leading the way.

“It’s easier to talk when you’re [riding] side by side. It’s gentler and less confrontational,” she points out, telling me about the work of Black Dog CC, a group that aims to “use cycling and coffee to implement conversations around suicide prevention and better mental health”.

Danielle Welton, Casquette Editor, agrees: “When you’ve had a tough day or week, getting out with your friend side-by-side on your bike can help irritations melt away. With time in the saddle, I often end up sharing my troubles – whether that’s work, relationships, family – and I often reach a positive resolution before I get home. I guess you could call it pedal therapy.”

Boosting the grey matter
Anyone who is passionate about cycling will be excited to learn that those long weekend rides are a great way to preserve your grey matter and make you feel good.

Sure, riding a bike won’t solve all of your problems. But for us at Casquette Towers – and a lot of you reading this – it’s an incredibly valuable tool for living a happy, healthy and balanced life. Like all good things, in moderation, of course.


Get more from Emily: @EmilyChappell

Illustration: Neil Webb

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