CAN RIDING BIKES MAKE YOU SMARTER?
This may sound strange, but there is scientific evidence that suggests that riding bikes might actually make people smarter. As it turns out, however, the study was conducted with animals, and they weren’t riding bikes either.
The experiment was conducted in Europe a couple of years ago and reported in the Journal of Physiology. The report found that aerobic exercise caused rats to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain connected with learning new things. Though the researchers used rats in their experiment, the scientists believe that the same principle would apply to humans. If that is indeed true, then the exercise we get when riding would likely enhance our learning ability as well. For all we know, it might actually be possible to raise one’s IQ by riding bikes. There was a famous photo that showed Albert Einstein riding a bike when he was probably in his 60s or 70s. For all we know now, his lifelong love of riding bikes may have been one of the things that helped turn him into a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.
A LITTLE HISTORY
It had been discovered roughly 10 years ago that exercise caused the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. The more recent experiment was devised to find out what kind of exercise offered the greatest benefit to the brain.
The experiment was detailed in the Journal of Physiology in 2016 and later reported in the New York Times.
One group of rats was allowed to run inside wire exercise wheels that spun as they ran. The rats would do this for an hour or more, and do it voluntarily. Such exercise is thought to be similar aerobically to what people experience when running or cycling.
A second group of rats performed exercises that resembled interval training, where they put out a hard effort for a couple of minutes, rested for 90 seconds, then repeated that cycle for about an hour a day.
A third group of rats performed an exercise that was designed to be the equivalent of weightlifting. These rats had weights taped to their tails, then climbed up special ladders in their cages. Over the course of the experiment, the weights were increased, so that the rats grew increasingly stronger and developed bigger muscles in their legs.
A fourth group of rats stayed in cages designed to keep them mostly sedentary. All four groups of rats were given injections of chemicals that let the scientists examine their brains at the end of the experiment to see which rats grew the largest number of new brain cells in the hippocampus.
WHAT THE SCIENTISTS LEARNED
Researchers found that the rats that did the sustained aerobic exercise grew the largest numbers of new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis).
The rats that did the interval training grew some new brain cells, but not nearly as many as the rats that did the aerobic exercise.
Both the weight-lifting rats and the sedentary rats showed almost no new brain-cell growth.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR PEOPLE?
The scientists who conducted the experiments believe that it’s likely that people’s brains would react to exercise in the same way the rats’ brains did. In other words, people would probably experience a similar rise in neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells) in the learning center of the brain following aerobic exercise. The good news is that bike rides over an hour long provide that kind of exercise.
Over the years, the Mountain Bike Action staff has often noticed that the top cross-country mountain bikers usually earn very high GPA’s (grade point averages) in college. For instance, our current Pro Men’s cross-country national champion, Howard Grotts finished Fort Lewis College with a 4.0 GPA (an “A” average) while also winning collegiate national mountain bike titles. Stephen Ettinger, who preceded Grotts as national champion, graduated from college with a GPA of 3.8 and won two collegiate national titles while in school. (Stephen has put his pro racing career on hold for now and will be starting medical school this August.) As for the women, America’s current national champion in the pro cross-country ranks, Kate Courtney, graduated from Stanford University with a 3.9 GPA while winning collegiate national titles in cross-country mountain biking.
Studies of college athletics programs have found that the students who participate in sports such as track, swimming, soccer, rugby, and rowing tend to have higher GPA’s than students who participate in football, basketball and baseball.
The scientists’ experiment with the rats—and what it showed about new brain-cell growth—would seem to suggest that participating in cycling (and other sports that require sustained aerobic activity, such as running or swimming) might actually improve the ability of those students to learn things more easily, which would probably result in those students receiving better grades, which would probably help them be more successful later in life as well.
[The full text of the paper describing the experiment can be found in the study titled, “Physical exercise increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in male rats provided it is aerobic and sustained,” which appeared in the Journal of Physiology and can be found on the United States government’s National Library of Medicine website: www.ncbi.nlm.nig.gov.]
Here’s the link to the study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26844666