Body and Mind

Why do you bike?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what motivates me is joy. Partly it’s the physical thrill of powering up a hill and feeling like I’m going to keep sailing off into the sky, like the elevator smashing through the skylight in the first Willy Wonka movie.

Partly it’s the lyrical flights of creativity inspired by close contact with the beauty of nature, taken to a new level of insight by the oxygen pumping to my brain.

But others might be more interested in the mundane medical benefits, physical and psychological. As the Roman poet Juvenal said, Mens sana in corpore sano: “A healthy mind in a healthy body.”

Physical Benefits

MedlinePlus lists the usual benefits of physical exercise: It helps you control your weight, reduce your risk of heart diseases, manage blood sugar and insulin levels, quit smoking, strengthen bone and muscles, reduce your risk for some cancers, reduce your risk of falls, improve your sexual health, improve your sleep, and increase your chances of living longer.

But you probably knew all of that.

I used to come down with a cold or flu every fall when I stopped biking. But the first winter I lived in Boston, the weather was so mild, I kept biking.

And I didn’t get sick.

It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. Here’s what I think happened: My body gradually got used to the colder weather, and my immune system ramped up to handle it. Then, when the usual viruses made their rounds, my immune system easily brushed them off.

The key is “gradually.” If you commute inside the heated cabin of a motor vehicle, then on a sub-zero January day think, “I’ll bike to work today and inoculate myself against the flu,” it won’t work.

Of course, that’s not a scientific study. Maybe someone could do proper survey of regular winter bike commuters, and see if they really do have fewer sick days. 

Mental Benefits

Linda Wasmer Andrews, in Psychology Today, writes,

You hear more about gray matter in the brain, but white matter matters, too... Brain scans showed that practicing pedaling on a regular basis increased the integrity of white matter fiber tracts...

Aerobic exercise is good for the brain in other ways as well. For instance, it helps maintain adequate blood flow to the brain, which supplies the metabolically rapacious organ with a steady stream of oxygen and nutrients. This may be one reason why regular physical activity helps keep thinking, learning and judgment sharp as people age...

Cycling outdoors in natural surroundings only magnifies these benefits. That’s because spending time in nature can, in itself, reduce stress and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. There’s also evidence that “green exercise” can boost enjoyment and motivation.

In the British newspaper The Guardian, Charles Graham-Dixon adds,

Key to the therapeutic qualities of cycling is its inherent mindfulness. Focusing on the physical and engaging mind and body purely on riding takes us away from negative, swirling thoughts, which take on such greater and troubling significance when we obsess over them. This unhealthy rumination makes life unnecessarily convoluted, while cycling, at its heart, is a simple activity. Once into my rhythm on the road, my only thoughts are each pedal stroke, how hard I can push myself and my speed as I cut through the air. On my bike I feel at home, in sync with my mind and body.

Let me offer other practical benefits.
When I bike to work, I arrive “pumped,” fully alert, ready to do my best work right away. There’s no need to stare at a cup of coffee for an hour before I’m productive. If employers knew that, they’d incentivize all employees to commute by bike.Even when I’m doing a fitness ride—not biking to work—I find that I have more and better ideas. Often I’ll be fully focused on the road or trail, and get a “bolt from the blue.” Then I pull over, send myself a text or email as a reminder, and get back on the road.(Note: Please don’t text or call while moving. Pull over first. No matter how brilliant your idea might be, distracted vehicle operation is a dumb idea, whether you’re operating a car, truck, SUV, or bike.)If you like, you can share your favorite “bolt from the blue” by leaving a comment on our Facebook page.