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!
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.