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Pedal Power Equals Brain Power for Adults over 50

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Riding an electric bike just a few times a week may improve brain function in adults 50-years-old and older, potentially reducing the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and other age-associated neurodegenerative disorders, according to a new report from the U.K.-based cycleBOOM project.

Doctors and scientists have long known that there is a connection between outdoor exercise and mental and emotional well being. For example, a German study released in 2007, “High impact running improves learning,” showed that exercising before studying could help a person learn vocabulary about 20 percent faster. The study also reported that “regular physical exercise improves cognitive functions and lowers the risk for age-related cognitive decline.”

Released in February 2019, the cycleBOOM study, “The Effect of Cycling on Cognitive Function and Well-being in Older Adults,” shows that to be beneficial outdoor exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be strenuous. A 60-year-old doesn’t have to do high-impact running to improve her brain health. In fact, riding an electric bike for recreation or basic transportation will improve brain function.

“It is really encouraging that this research suggests older adults’ cognitive function (particularly what we call executive function as well as processing speed) could be improved by cycling in the natural or urban environment, even when that was on an electrically assisted ebike,” said Dr. Louise-Ann Leyland, one of the study’s authors.

Oxford Study

Leyland and her colleagues monitored 100 adults aged 50 to 83 from Oxford in the United Kingdom. Each participant was given a battery of tests before and after an eight-week intervention period. During this intervention period roughly a third of the participants did not cycle, a third rode a conventional bicycle, and a third rode an ebike.

The conventional and electric bike cyclists were asked to ride three times per week for about 30 minutes each time.

Both groups of cyclists showed improvements in some of the executive function tests. Electric bike riders also showed improvement in mental well-being.

The researchers believe that cycling, be it on a conventional bicycle or an electric bike, may increase blood flow in the brain encouraging cell regeneration.

It is important to point out that the study did not necessarily show significant improvements in memory or some verbal skills. This may have been related to the relatively small number of participants (38 rode electric bikes) and the relatively short duration.

“We found that some aspects of mental health and well-being increased in participants, who cycled on an ebike for an hour and a half a week for an eight-week period,” Leyland said. “This suggests that there may be an impact of exercising in the environment on executive function and mental health. It would be great to see the effect of cycling, particularly ebike use, on cognition and well-being in a larger sample of participants over a longer period of time.”

Electric Bikes Help Older Adults Get Exercise

“Electric bikes can be especially empowering for those who would like to exercise more, but who have a health condition that limits the amount of physical activity they can perform. By controlling the amount of assistance they receive from the motor, ebike riders can tailor the difficulty level of their rides to meet their unique health and fitness needs. This can be especially helpful to those with joint pain, exercise-induced asthma, heart or lung problems, or who are overweight,” wrote Boris and Yevgeniy Mordkovich in “The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide.”

For at least some older adults, an electric bike can be a gateway toward getting more exercise that could improve both mental and physical health.

“We had thought that those who used traditional, pedal-only powered bikes would have the greatest brain and mental health boost, as they would be giving their cardiovascular systems the biggest workout,” said Carien Van Reekum, a professor of psychology at the University of Reading, and another of the study’s authors.

“Instead, people who used ebikes told us that they felt more confident in completing the requested activity of three 30-minute rides a week for eight weeks, compared to pedal bikers. The fact that the group was able to get outside on a bike, even without much physical exertion, is likely to make people feel mentally better,” Van Reekum said.

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