Why cycling is great for your brain health

Why cycling is great for your brain health

Going for a bike ride can do wonders for your physical health, but what about your mental health?

Shapely quads and glutes are nice, but what if something as simple as riding a bike could act as psychotherapy? 

Could it cure your blues, or is it just New Age nonsense?

It’s sobering how modern living has elevated our stress and anxiety levels leaving our poor brains fatigued and hungry for positive nourishment. Neurotransmitter deficiency is a real problem for many adults leading many to feel down and depressed.

So, how does cycling actually impact our brain health and what can you take away as a positive reminder of the benefits? This article sheds some light.

Cycling and brain health

A positive spin on life

Some emotional benefits include elevated mood, relief from anxiety, an increased resistance to stress, and it can even quell depression symptoms. Cycling also boosts the production of feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine.

Around 20 – 30 minutes into your ride, endorphins and endocannabinoids kick in as well.

Regular rides keep hormones like adrenaline and cortisol in check, which makes you feel less stressed and allows you to bounce back easily from stressful situations.

Cycling is movement and exploration! Just you, the road, and all these wonderful neurotransmitters firing away! That alone is worth spending time on the bike regardless of how far you  ride and how much you exert myself.

Cycling is healthy, but it can be a stressor, especially if you’re starting out or getting back into it. Your first exertion releases cortisol to combat stress in the body. As you become fitter, it takes more and more stress to trigger the same response, hence why you can handle stress better.

Cycling helps your mind grow (literally)

Cycling is like fertilizer for the brain.

It creates capillary beds in your quads, glutes, and more importantly, gray matter in the brain. More blood vessels in the brain means more oxygen and
other important nutrients get carried to the brain.

Cycling also forces nerve cells to fire when you’re pedaling. Another benefit is an increase in the creation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and a compound called noggin that promotes the formation of new brain cells.  

The final result: Neuron production has now either doubled or tripled, which means that more neurotransmitters will be released so cells can communicate more efficiently.

Plus, there is this feeling of being “in the zone” or a “runner’s high”. There is a lot of discussion about a so-called “flow state” and high performance.

Independent of the performance aspects and far more relevant to the majority of riders who are not competing is the simple but immense benefits this “flow state” does to help quiet the negative mental chatter going on in our brains.

For some added perspective and insights, check out this article here and here.

And there’s more good news! This heightened pleasure state lasts well after you’re off your bike. Usually, a good 4-5 hours so it really has an all day effect.

Imagine having that extra energy to devote to projects and work and be far more productive throughout the day. Riding for 3-4 days a week even for short distances has powerful long term benefits.

You may have heard of  “smart drugs” that help activate the same set of neurotransmitters. There are a variety of nootropic supplements on the market that promise to aid and boost cognitive health.

I’ve never tried them for any length of time and I’m wary of the potential side effects. I’d recommend caution and do your research before relying on them too heavily. If you want to learn more about nootropics, this article summarizes their benefits.

A final recommendation

A 45 – 60 minute session 3 – 5 times a week should do the trick, along with using 50% – 85% of your maximum heart rate. Keep in mind that these are minimum requirements. Safely bike til’ your heart, or brains content!

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