Atlantic Cities

Why We Need More Research Into Cycling and Brain Science

Why We Need More Research Into Cycling and Brain Science
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My story earlier this week about the effects of bicycling and walking to school for kids got this response from @Kyle_Moler on Twitter: "Biking to school helps kids concentrate. I think it also helps big kids who bike to work too."

"I’d I'd say the same thing about grownups," tweeted @debgreenspan. "When I don't #bike to work I'm a mess."

The Danish study I cited in my earlier piece, which shows that kids concentrate better after biking or walking to school, is far from the only research showing positive cognitive benefits from cycling, and not just for school-age kids. And yet these connections are only beginning to be adequately explored.

A recent article in Bicycling magazine, "Riding Is My Ritalin," looked at the effects of cycling on ADHD in children and adults, telling the story of one young man who has been using an intense road cycling regimen to treat his own attention disorder. As the article points out, researchers were looking at the link between physical activity and attention deficit as long ago as the 1970s.

But while awareness of ADHD has exploded in years since, and prescriptions for drugs to treat it have soared in the United States, research since has been scant – perhaps because there is no ready source of funding for such studies, as there is for pharmaceutical interventions.

The same holds true for depression and other mood problems. People who ride bicycles are almost ridiculously eager – and I include myself in this company – to tell you about how getting on the bike and riding for transportation or for pleasure elevates their mood and helps calm anxiety. It’s one of the reasons that people become so passionately attached to their bicycles. Yet scientists still don’t fully understand why this might be so.

John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, is one of the people who is trying to figure it out. His 2008 book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, looked at the link between exercise and learning, mood, aging, ADHD, and a host of other mental functions. In an interview with The Independent, Ratey discussed why cycling might be a particularly effective way to both exercise our bodies and sharpen our minds:

Rhythm may explain some of the effects. "Think about it evolutionarily for a minute," he says. "When we had to perform physically, those who could find an altered state and not experience the pain or a drag on endurance would have been at an advantage. Cycling is also increasing a lot of the chemistry in your brain that make you feel peaceful and calm."

At the same time, the focus required to operate a bicycle, and for example, to negotiate a junction or jostle for space in a race, can be a powerful medicine. Dr Ratey cites a study his department is currently conducting. More than 20 pupils with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are expected to show improved symptoms after a course of cycling.

Cycling, says Ratey, is "like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin."

Measuring the effect of physical activity on brain chemistry in real world situations is notoriously difficult. But there is one area where some intriguing work is being done, and that is among patients with Parkinson’s disease, a progessive neurodegenerative disease that causes tremors, weakness, and rigidity.

Neuroscientist Jay Alberts conducted studies to explore this possibility after he went on a tandem bike trip across Iowa with a Parkinson’s patient:

"The finding was serendipitous," Dr. Alberts recalled. "I was pedaling faster than her, which forced her to pedal faster. She had improvements in her upper extremity function, so we started to look at the possible mechanism behind this improved function."

His follow-up studies put patients on an eight-week regimen of exercise on a stationary bicycle, pushing them to pedal harder than they wanted to. At the end, “results showed increases in task-related connectivity between the primary motor cortex and the posterior region of the brain's thalamus.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the way cycling can activate the neural connections of a Parkinson’s sufferer comes in this YouTube video, posted by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEMJ).

In it, you first see a man struggling with the Parkinsonian condition know as "freezing gait," unable to shuffle more than a few feet down a hallway even with assistance. It is painful to watch.

In the next clip, he is on a bicycle, tooling around a parking lot. You would never know that there is anything wrong with him. His face is relaxed and happy. It seems as miraculous a transformation as anything chronicled in Awakenings, Oliver Sacks’s seminal book about patients with a form of Parkinson’s who are given the drug L-DOPA. But when the man dismounts from the bike, he freezes again. From the NEMJ:

This striking kinesia paradoxica may be explained by the bicycle's rotating pedals, which may act as an external pacing cue. Alternatively, the motor-control mechanisms involved in gait as compared with other activities engaging the legs, such as cycling, could be affected differentially in Parkinson's disease. Cycling may offer a useful approach for exercise training in patients with Parkinson's who are “grounded” by severe freezing of gait.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this video comes to us from the Netherlands, where cycling is a way of life for everyone from children to senior citizens (the provenance of the video also explains the absence of a helmet, which merits a disclaimer on the NEMJ site).

These experiments on bicycling and brain function, along with other studies about the connection between exercise, mood, and concentration, are clearly in their early stages. But they raise profound questions about the way our preferred mode of transportation affects our cognition and mood.

What effect has our dependence on the automobile had on our collective mental health? What role does passive transportation play in mood and attention disorders, especially for children? What therapeutic effects could a shift to more active transportation modes have for people who suffer from these disorders? What are the social costs of an environment that enforces auto dependence? Does cycling have special benefits that other exercise modes don’t?

These are important questions. We should be trying much harder to answer them. 

Top image: jean schweitzer/Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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