CAN RIDING MOUNTAIN BIKES MAKE YOU SMARTER?

One more reason that high school and college students should ride mountain bikes

There is scientific evidence that suggests that riding bikes might actually make people more intelligent. The experiment was conducted by scientists with rats, but it’s believed that what took place in the rats’ brains would probably take place in people’s brains as well.

The experiment was conducted in Europe a few years ago and was 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 bikes would likely enhance our learning ability too. If that’s true, it might actually be possible to raise one’s grades in school by riding bikes every day.

Physicist Albert Einstein, who came up with the Theory of Relativity, is recognized as one of the greatest geniuses of all time. He was also an avid bike rider. There was a famous photo that showed Albert Einstein still riding a bike when he was in his 60s or 70s. For all we know, his lifelong love of riding bikes may have been one of the things that helped make him one of the smartest people who ever lived.

A LITTLE HISTORY

It was discovered over 10 years ago that aerobic exercise caused rats to grow new brain cells in the part of the brain associated with learning. Another more recent experiment was devised several years ago 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 reported in the New York Times.

THE EXPERIMENT

One group of rats got aerobic exercise every day by running inside wire exercise wheels in their cages. The rats would do this for an hour or more each day, and they would do this voluntarily. Such exercise is thought to be similar to the kind of workout that people get when jogging, running or cycling for an hour or more at a time.

A second group of rats performed exercises that resembled interval training. They put out a hard effort for a couple of minutes, then rested for 90 seconds, then repeated that process and did so 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, after which they climbed up special ladders in their cages. Over the course of the experiment, the weights were increased, so that the rats’ legs grew increasingly larger and stronger.

A fourth group of rats stayed in cages that were designed to keep them mostly sedentary. They didn’t have wheels to run inside, and they didn’t have things to climb.

At the end of the experiment, all four groups of rats were given injections of special chemicals that let the scientists dissect their brains and then see which group of rats grew the largest number of new brain cells in the learning centers of their brains.

WHAT THE SCIENTISTS LEARNED

Researchers found that the rats that did the sustained aerobic exercise grew the largest numbers of new brain cells in the learning center of the brain (a process called neurogenesis).

The mice that did the equivalent of interval training (short periods of both exercise and resting) grew some new brain cells, but not nearly as many as the rats that did the sustained 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 increase in brain cell development after repeated periods of daily aerobic exercise, similar to those that cross-country mountain bikers in high school or college would experience.

Over the years, Mountain Bike Action’s senior editor John Ker has often noticed that the top cross-country mountain bikers that he’ profiled over the past 20 years have usually earned extremely good grades in college. For instance, our 2018 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 is now in medical school.)  As for the women, the 2018 World Champion and 2019 World Cup Series Champion in the Elite Women’s cross-country ranks, Kate Courtney, graduated from Stanford University with a 3.9 GPA while winning collegiate national titles in cross-country mountain biking at the same time. Many of the other top cross-country riders, including former national champions Todd Wells and Lea Davison, also did extremely well in college.

Studies of college athletics programs have found that the students who participate in aerobic sports such as cycling, track, swimming, soccer, rugby, and rowing tend to have significantly higher GPA’s on average than those students who participate in football, basketball, and baseball—whose participants don’t go through sustained periods of aerobic exercise.

Ned Overend, who was the UCI Men’s XC World Champion in 1990, and a six-time national champion in the U.S., recalls now that he was on the Dean’s List when he was in junior college with a GPA of about 3.7. After that, he went to San Diego State and had a similar GPA of about 3.5. Ned told us on February 7, 2022: “I was meeting last week with the president of Fort Lewis College about their cycling team, and the cycling team had the best GPA of any sport at the college.”

The scientists’ experiment with the rats—and what it showed about new brain-cell growth—suggests that participating in mountain biking and other forms of cycling might improve the ability of those students in school, and that matches our observations and fits in well with the observation made by the president of Fort Lewis College.

[The full text of the paper describing the experiment on rats and their brains 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

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