How Cycling Can Improve Your Mental Health

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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How Cycling Can Improve Your Mental Health

A regular cycling regimen can help manage weight, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Beyond that, cycling has been shown to help build cognitive function and aid emotional health by helping reduce stress and anxiety, and maybe even fight against neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and schizophrenia.

HOW CYCLING BOOSTS BRAIN HEALTH

The brain needs a steady supply of blood to transport oxygen and nutrients for it to function at its best, which makes exercise especially important. As you ride a bike, nerve cells create a protein called BDNF by drastically increasing the production of neurons that lead to the formation of new brain cells.

In this study, 33 subjects with central nervous system disorders associated with either metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes and a reduction of BDNF were enrolled in a 12-week indoor cycling regimen. After 12 weeks of cycling, their serum BDNF increased significantly. Higher levels of BDNF are known to reduce the risk of diabetes and stroke and promote healthy brain activity while lowering your chances of developing diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In another recent study conducted in the Netherlands, researchers explored whether or not cycling can increase the integrity of white matter in the brain, since white matter is the part of the brain that helps transport information to the cerebral cortex and various regions of the brain. If the white matter of the brain isn’t functioning correctly, slowed thinking and a decrease in motor skills can easily develop.

During the experiment, 33 patients with schizophrenia and 48 healthy individuals were subjected to six months of exercise on a stationary cycling trainer. After conducting a series of brain scans, the study concluded the integrity of white matter significantly increased in both schizophrenic and healthy individuals. This is important because a regular lifestyle that doesn’t involve consistent exercise can decrease the integrity of white matter and degrade over time.

HOW CYCLING BOOSTS EMOTIONAL HEALTH

You’re probably aware of the “high” you sometimes feel after an especially long or difficult ride, whether it’s in the form of Improved mood, reduced stress or enhanced memory. As it turns out, cycling is one of the activities that has been shown to produce a natural cannabinoid called anandamide. This activation during cycling works in a similar way as when marijuana is introduced into the system, resulting in a more relaxed and euphoric state that can help improve mood and decrease mental stress.

Yet another study looked at how cycling may help to prevent and treat depression and anxiety in the brain by lowering cortisol levels — a hormone that has long been associated with emotional health and well-being. Eighteen patients being medicated and treated for depressive symptoms were examined for changes in cortisol levels before and after pedaling a stationary bicycle every day for 15 minutes. Within one month, patients who participated in the study showed lowered cortisol levels and decreased depressive symptoms, with some moving into remission.

WAYS TO RIDE

Whether you’re riding to lower your risk of disease or give your overall happiness a boost, there is a sweet spot you’ll need to reach in order to get maximum benefit. Here are few tips to help you do it right:

  • Ride for at least 30–60 minutes. After about 30 minutes of exercise, endorphins and cannabinoids that improve mood are released in the body. To sharpen your cognitive abilities, you may need to ride for up to 60 minutes.
  • Ride at an intensity between 50–85% of your maximum heart rate. This is the zone you’ll need to maintain to boost your mood and ward off depression. This equates to about a 7 out of 10 on your perceived rate of exertion scale, which is what you’d expect of a typical group ride with friends.
  • Keep out of the red zone. While you may want to occasionally ride hard to improve fitness or train for a big event, if your primary goal is mental health, its best to avoid going too hard. This is because of the overproduction of adrenaline, which can negatively affect dopamine and anandamide chemicals in the brain.
  • Get outside as much as you can. While indoor cycling can still improve brain health as indicated by the studies above, exercising outdoors can be even more beneficial toward relieving stress, boosting your mood and reducing anxiety.
  • Be consistent. You don’t always have to ride long or hard. Getting into a routine of exercising at least five days per week can drastically improve the health of your body and mind, and all you need is about 30 minutes per day.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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