Bicycling has been consistently popular since the bicycle was invented, especially with children. Who can forget the thrilling sense of independence as the world expanded, first by blocks, and then by miles, beyond the boundaries of where it was possible to walk before darkness fell? Heart and legs pumping, your face caressed by the wind, the aromas of life wafting before you as you pedaled past a bakery, a freshly mowed lawn, a lumberyard.
Worldwide, more adults than ever are embracing those memories and creating more of them by choosing bicycles for their daily commutes. In the U.S., biking to work has increased by 60% in the past decade. In some cities, more than 10% of commuters prefer the bicycle to cars. An 18-year study published in the U.K. concluded that bicycle commuters enjoyed lower stress levels, better sleep, increased problem-solving skills and higher levels of overall happiness. In Sydney, Australia, a study of 846 inner city commuters revealed that cycling commuters reported a better overall quality of life, and physical health than commuters using other forms of transportation.
The health benefits of bicycling are undeniable. One of the most urgent of those health benefits is that it reduces pollution. It’s estimated that over 3,000 Australians die each year from conditions either caused or affected by pollution. A research study conducted by Cornell University concluded that 40% of all deaths worldwide are caused by pollution of air, water, and soil.
Bicycling raises the metabolic rate, improves blood pressure control, lowers the resting heart rate and improves the ratio of good cholesterol (HDL). All of these things reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. It also reduces the risk of heart disease by up to 50%. Regular exercise also help control blood sugar and prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Increase muscle strength, mobility, and coordination are great fringe benefits, too, and cycling during pregnancy can even make childbirth easier.
During a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, research scientists administered tests that measured memory, reasoning and planning. They found that people scored higher and finished the tests more quickly after riding pedaling a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes. There’s a good neurological explanation for that.
Pedaling causes a greater number of e nerve cells to fire. When those neurons light up, they increase the production of proteins in the brain. Two of those proteins are neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and a compound almost comically named noggin, both of which are essential for the formation of new brain cells. Cycling can double or triple the production of neurons that release the neurotransmitters that allow all of the different regions of our brains to communicate with one another.
According to neuroscientist Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois, “Our research finds that after only three months, people who exercised had the brain volume of those three years younger.” He bases that comment on a six-month study of 59 volunteers between the ages of 60 and 79. Differences were discovered between the brains of volunteers who remained inactive and sedentary and those who engaged in a regular exercise program.
As science discovers more about how interconnected our physical, mental and emotional health are, many health care professionals have begun to take a more holistic approach to patient care. That interconnectedness is demonstrated by the physical symptoms, such as high blood pressure, that can be caused by emotional stress. Anxiety, panic attacks, and depression are examples of mental health symptoms that prolonged stress can cause.
James Blumenthal, PhD professor of behavioral medicine at Duke University says that “Exercise works as well as psychotherapy and antidepressants in the treatment of depression, maybe better…” A study that analyzed 26 years of research revealed one common finding—20-30 minutes of exercise a day can prevent depression. Like other forms of exercise, cycling increases the production of serotonin and dopamine. It also burns off excess adrenaline produced by stress and lowers cortisol levels.
Cycling can save money, but it can also help us slow down and appreciate the natural world around us. Reducing pollution is a great way to help save that natural world for future generations.