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Blazing Saddles: Brainy bicycling

As if burning calories and improving cardio­vascular fitness and body strength weren’t enough, recent studies show the brain-boost­ing benefits of biking, which begs the ques­tion, does cycling improve your sanity?

By Baz Daniel

Sunday 29 September 2019, 10:00AM

Turning the cogs of your bike turns the cogs of your mind too. Image: Cycology Clothing

Turning the cogs of your bike turns the cogs of your mind too. Image: Cycology Clothing

I was recently out cycling in the south of Phuket with my riding buddies – four enthusiasts who regularly pound the pedals together, followed by just the occasional rehydrating bubbling libation. Perched atop Promthep Cape over­looking the swirling monsoonal seas and scudding rain clouds, I was struck by the fact that this group was not exactly in the first blush of youth. In fact, a quick bit of mental arithmetic led me to the conclusion that we boasted a total of 270 years of (ahem) “wis­dom” between us. I also noticed that most of the fat, ungainly tyres in this group were in fact on the rims of our bicycle wheels rather than around the group’s collective midriff.

The physical health benefits of cycling are of course well documented, but it also struck me that here was a merry band of Lycra louts who seemed more well-balanced and cheerful than the average mid-60 year old.

Some follow-up research revealed that cycling is not only good for your body but it also improves the way your brain works by making several important neural 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 centre of your body, and white matter, constituting the communication hub, using axons to connect the different areas 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 from the Netherlands found that cycling does exactly that, improving both the integrity and density of white matter, thereby speeding up connections in the brain.

White matter isn’t the only brain structure stimu­lated by cycling. Another study found that after cycling for just 12 weeks, participants gained more than leg strength; they also saw a boost in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein responsible for regulating stress, mood and memory. This might ex­plain previous research that also found cycling to be associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.

You’ll not only feel mentally better after a bike ride but you’ll actually be smarter. Biking, along with other types of aerobic exercise, was shown to increase the hippocampus, one of several brain structures related to memory and learning. Additionally, the tested cyclists reported greater ability to focus and an improved attention span, certainly factors that are critical to survival on Phuket’s maniacal roads!

HeadStart International School Phuket

All of these advantages gained from cycling seem to counteract the loss of brain function normally as­sociated with ageing, with researchers noting that cyclists’ brains appeared on average to be two years younger than their non-exercising peers.

Dr Art Kramer, the director of the study at the University of Illinois said, “Increasingly, people are living more sedentary lifestyles. While we know that cycling can have positive effects on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, we have now found that it can also bring about improvements in cognition, brain-function and structure.”

The sheer decision-making intensity and need for razor-like concentration that cycling in Phuket demands will train your brain to work extremely ef­ficiently, purely as a matter of cycling survival. But these benefits also continue into your everyday life to make your brain more efficient, effective and you hap­pier than if you don’t challenge it in this way. All this is predicated, of course, upon cycling with the great­est care and attention to safety whenever you go out on our congested island.

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 questions you should be asking now are, “What time does that spin class start?” or “Where do I buy a good bike to take onto Phuket’s roads?”

“Bicycling” Baz Daniel fell off his first bicycle aged three... a case of love at first slight. Since then he has spent a further 65 years falling on and off bicycles all over the world, but his passion endures. When not in traction, he found time to become Senior VP of the world's largest advertising and communications group, finally retiring to Phuket in 2006. He has been penning his Blazing Saddles column, chronicling his cycling adventures in Phuket and beyond, since 2013.

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GerryT81 | 02 October 2019 - 14:14:36

Definitely it's not working with everyone.

Kurt | 02 October 2019 - 11:15:58

The last years biking became increasingly dangerous on Phuket roads. 
Therefore I stationed my bike near one of the reservoirs, go there by car and do the health biking there. Actually sad one can not bike safely on Phuket roads. A biker is the lowest in dangerous thai traffic ranks.

Kurt | 02 October 2019 - 11:01:09

All in article very true. Had myself several times bike holidays in Denmark and the Netherlands. Bikers have their own lanes, with own traffic lights at junctions.  Kids bike to schools, sometimes distances 10-12 km in morning and again in evening. Until age 16 they not allowed to ride motorbike. Check on that by police is very strict.

DeKaaskopp | 30 September 2019 - 16:48:09

It says in the article that cycling can make you think faster,remember more and feel happier.Time for the grumpy serial poster to get on a bike!

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