(WellnessNova.com) - More and more people are taking up cycling everyday as a method to improve their physical health. In fact, the League of American Bicyclists reported that from 2000 to 2013, bicycle commuting rates in large Bicycle Friendly Communities increased by 105 percent.
Cycling is great cardiovascular exercise, and you don’t have to be in the Tour de France or be particularly speedy to experience the benefits. Cycling can help people lose weight and lower blood pressure, as well as tone muscle. But what many people are not as aware of, is how cycling also improves mental well-being.
Here are five ways cycling can bring greater peace of mind and improve mental health:
1. Cycling Produces Stress-reducing Endorphins
Exercise is an excellent way to boost the body’s production of endorphins — the chemical in your brain that is responsible for stress release and relaxation.
Endorphins are also a huge part of how the body manages pain by inhibiting the transmission of pain signals in your brain. In fact, the word “endorphin” means endogenous morphine or morphine that is produced by the body.
Release of endorphins also improves sleep, which in turn helps relieve stress and helps the body and brain heal and repair itself.
2. Cycling Makes You “High”
The feeling one gets after a high-intensity workout is not only due to endorphins. A more interesting chemical is at work in the brain after cycling and running.
A study from 2004 by A Dietrich and WF McDaniel on Endocannabinoids and Exercise reports that “exercise of moderate intensity dramatically increased concentrations of anandamide in blood plasma.”
Anandamide is an endocannabinoid and yes, if that word sounds familiar, it is because it is in the same family of chemicals that give pot smokers that “high” and relaxation. But the body can produce anandamide all by itself.
The study was done by monitoring anandamide content in males who either ran on a treadmill or cycled on a stationary bike for 50 minutes.
3. Cycling Can Make You Smarter
An exciting study from February 2016 suggests that high-intensity aerobic exercise may help build new brain cells. In the study, male rats who undertook intervals of high-intensity aerobic exercise showed enhancements in adult hippocampal neurogenesis (AHN), or brain cell growth.
While there is still a lot to be learned about how this kind of high-intensity interval training can help brain cell growth in humans, there is promising evidence in this study to suggest that people that engage in bursts of fast bouts of exercise, such as cycling, followed by slower speed exercise could lead to improved brain health.
Regular exercise can also stave off the deterioration of the aging brain. Research from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois has shown that aerobic exercise can “improve memory, attention, and the ability to multi-task in otherwise healthy elderly people.”
The work went on to say that elderly people who engaged in regular exercise for more than six months, had an increase of 2 percent in the hippocampus, the part of the brain partly in charge of memory. This equates to a reversal in brain age of one to two years.
4. Cycling in Nature Improves Mood and Boosts Self-esteem
It feels great to exercise outside, whether running on the beach or mountain biking down some great trails. But why is this?
Research from 2010 out of the University of Essex suggests that even just five minutes of “green exercise” is enough to boost mood and improve mental health.
The research looked at 10 separate studies from the UK, with a total of 1,252 participants. The results showed marked improvements in self-esteem and mood after exercising in nature. The presence of water showed an even greater positive result and the outcome was similar for men and women.
Even more impressive was the result that green exercise had on the mentally ill who showed one of the greatest improvements to self-esteem.
David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah has also been interested in how spending time in nature can help bring peace of mind. In an article in National Geographic, he talks about how spending time in nature is like “cleaning the mental windshield” and gives one time to reset and recharge the mind.
The article goes on to explain his hypothesis on how “being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle.”
5. Cycling Can Reduce Cortisol
There’s a lot of talk about cortisol lately. The link between higher cortisol levels and expanding waistline has been long established. Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”, and it is produced by the adrenal gland which is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain.
Many people have the impression that cortisol is all bad. But this is not the case — cortisol is actually increased in the body during exercise as a means of helping the body deal with the “stress” of exercise.
Basically, the purpose of cortisol is to increase the concentration of glucose in the body which in turn provides the muscles with much needed energy during exercise.
Cortisol becomes a problem when it is not being elevated in the body through exercise, but through chronic stress in everyday, sedentary life. It seems as though when athletes are exposed to elevations in cortisol through exercise, it is not harmful because cortisol levels naturally decrease again when the athletes are at rest.
It is only when high-performance athletes exercise to the extreme that cortisol can again become unbeneficial because there is not enough time for it to decrease.
However, someone who is exposed to constant stress has a continuously elevated level of cortisol and this will eventually lead to weight gain, particularly in the waistline.
Because cycling reduces stress, it is a natural way to regulate this elevated cortisol level and ensure that it comes back down after exercise, during rest.
So now is the time to get on a bike, even if you’ve never tried it before. You can bike leisurely and go at your own pace and still experience all of the great benefits of cycling. Give yourself the gift of better mental health and go cycling today!