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The Brain Science of Biking

by Charlotte Hilton Andersen

As if burning calories wasn't enough, a new study shows the brain-boosting benefits of biking, which begs the question: can you cycle for sanity?
You already love cycling for its heart-pumping, calorie-torching, leg-shaking physical benefits, but it turns out that spinning your legs is also great exercise for your mind. Several new studies have found that cycling improves the way your brain works by making several important structures bigger so you can think faster, remember more, and feel happier.

The brain is made up of two kinds of tissues: Grey matter, which has all the synapses and is the command center of your body, and white matter, which is the communication hub, using axons to connect the different parts of grey matter. The more white matter you have, the faster you can make important connections, so anything that increases white matter is good. A recent study (link here) from the Netherlands found that cycling does exactly that, improving both the integrity and density of white matter and speeding up connections in the brain.

White matter isn't the only brain structure affected by cycling, however. Another study (link), published this year in the Journal of Diabetes Complications, found that after cycling for 12 weeks, participants gained more than just strength in their legs—they also saw a boost in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein responsible for regulating stress, mood, and memory. This might explain previous research that has found cycling to be associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety. (And there are these 13 Mental Health Benef!ts of Exercise too.)

You'll not only feel mentally better after a ride, but you'll actually be smarter. Biking, along with other types of aerobic exercise, has been shown to increase the hippocampus, one of several brain structures related to memory and learning. A study from the University of Illinois found that the hippocampus of participants grew two percent and improved their memory and problem solving skills by 15 to 20 percent after six months of cycling daily. Additionally, the cyclists reported a greater ability to focus and an improved attention span. To top it off, all of these perks seem to counteract the loss of brain function normally associated with aging, with the scientists noting that the cyclists' brains appeared two years younger than their non-exercising peers.

"Increasingly, people are living more sedentary lifestyles. While we know that [cycling] can have positive effects on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, we have found it can bring about improvements in cognition, brain function, and brain structure," said lead study author Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, in an interview with The Telegraph.

He added that there's no need to go all out to get the brain boosts, either. Most of the studies showed significant mental improvements after cyclists rode 30 minutes or less at a moderate intensity.

Stronger neural connections, a better mood, and a sharper memory—in addition to better heart health, a lower risk of diabetes, and less incidence of cancer. With all these benefits, the only question now should be, "When do those group rides start again?"