How Riding your Bike is Good for your Brain -part 1
By Clair Cafaro
It’s obvious how fantastic you feel after a long ride or a tough race, quads throbbing as you challenge friends to the top of a climb or sprint against rivals to the finish line. What you may not be aware of is that while your legs and lungs are getting a great workout, your brain is actually growing fitter too!
We’re all familiar with the “feel good hormones” endorphins and dopamine that are secreted by the brain during exercise. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the euphoria we feel whenever we ride our bikes. But riding our bikes affects our brain on a much deeper, much broader scale.
In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself” Norman Doidge, M.D., describes the brain as a “plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”.
Scientists have found that exercise is one of the few ways to enhance neuroplasticity. Much of the research done in this area has focused on running, but all types of aerobic exercise provide benefits.
Neurogenesis is the creation of new nerve cells (or neurons), which until the last 20 years were thought to be fixed. Scientists have only recently discovered that our brains are actually plastic and have the amazing ability to grow through the generation of new neurons and the creation of new connections between neurons (synapses). Good news, since we begin to lose nerve tissue at about age 30. Regular aerobic exercise is proven to stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by increasing the number of dendrites (tree-like fibers branching out from the nerve cell responsible for receiving information) which create a denser neural network better at processing and storing information. Alzheimer’s is caused due to a loss of neurons.
A Healthier Brain
Studies by scientists from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the Universityof Cambridgeand researchers at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, found that mice who exercised regularly performed better on memory tests. These mice also grew twice as many new brain cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain linked to memory and learning) than the mice who didn’t exercise. Early studies in humans clearly established a link between exercise and older adults between the ages of 55 and 80. Brain scans showed that participants who engaged in regular aerobic exercise (3 hours per week for 6 months) increased brain volume in the frontal and temporal areas which are involved in executive control and memory processes. In another study presented by Annie D. Cohen, a doctoral student in the department of neurology and Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers examined the brains of rats that had been forced to exercise for seven days before receiving a toxin that normally induces Parkinson’s disease. They found that, compared to rats that had not been exercised, significantly fewer dopamine-containing neurons died.
How Does Exercise Induce Neurogenesis?
While theories abound as to what is happening at the cellular level to induce neurogenesis during exercise, one of the prevailing theories is that the stress of exercise promotes the release of a gene named BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF is expressed to protect us from exercise stress by generating new neurons, strengthening and protecting existing neural connections (or synapses) as well as repairing injured neurons.
Kids of all ages benefit from bike riding too. Many scientific studies prove that kids who exercise have quicker response times, better working memory and superior cognitive abilities than their sedentary peers.
As if you needed another reason to ride your bike. Yes riding your bike does make you smarter. Part 2 will show you how riding your bike makes you happier too.
Clair Cafaro is the president of C.O.R.E CYCLING ®, an indoor cycling instructor certification program with an emphasis on authentic road riding principles. www.corecycling.ca
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