“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking” ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The benefits of cycling for fitness and physical function are well known. The more you cycle, the fitter and stronger you get. However, it is unknown whether the experience of cycling, the stimulation that is experienced from being outside and the sense of freedom that it provides can also improve cognitive function and wellbeing of the individual.
Cognition is defined as the mental processing of information and includes decision making, goal planning, reasoning, spatial awareness, attention, memory, and many more different complex operations that the brain engages in regularly. These are required for us to function on a day-to-day basis. Emerging evidence suggests that these cognitive functions can be improved through exercise (see Henriette Van Praag’s work from the National Institute on Aging). The underlying mechanism has been proposed to be due to exercise increasing cerebral blood flow, which allows the brain to grow new cells (for example, Dr. Heidi Johansen-Berg’s work conducted at Oxford University).
Cycling in the real world may not only increase cerebral blood flow through exercise. It can also provide stimulation through the surroundings, take the individual’s mind off of difficulties and create enjoyment for the cyclist through a sense of control and autonomy. This may mean that interacting with the natural environment through cycling could also improve cognition and enhance wellbeing. There are various forms of wellbeing but we are particularly focused in “eudaimonic” wellbeing that is the sense of happiness through fulfilment, autonomy and purpose in life (Prof. Carol D. Ryff from the University of Wisconsin). Does cycling have the potential to improve these aspects? That’s what we aim to find out.
After careful consideration of the aspects that may be affected by cycling, Carien van Reekum and I have devised a battery of well-established tests to measure the different components of cognitive function and mental wellbeing. For example, asking someone to read the colour of the text that the word “red” is printed in measures the ability to inhibit an inaccurate response (reading the written word if this is different from the text colour). In this case if the word “red” was written in green, participants would have to say “green”, and not “red”. But, this is a difficult task. Stroop (1935) developed this test to examine the ‘interference effect’. This is the phenomenon that the meaning of the printed word affects the speed at which the participant can name the colour of the text that the word is printed in. Participants found saying the colour of the text much harder when it differed from the written word compared to when simply reading the word (and ignoring the colour in which it was printed). If cycling does improve brain function, then this would be demonstrated by participants having faster reaction times to the colour of the words and them making fewer errors during the Stroop task.
RED – – – – – – – – – – RED
It is harder to say the colour of the text when this is incongruent with the written word as the meaning of the word interferes during colour naming
Not only may cycling improve attentional tasks such as the Stroop task, asking people to cycle more regularly (at least 3 times a week) encourages them to navigate around their surroundings during their journey. After an 8 week period of increased cycling, spatial awareness may also be improved. We are also taking measures of these abilities through mental rotation and maze navigation tasks. Mental rotation tasks require the participants to match shapes, differing in orientation only, to the original image.
The tests that we are employing to measure psychological wellbeing have been developed over a period of time, since the mid-1990s, at University of Wisconsin by a previous colleague of Carien van Reekum, Prof. Carol D. Ryff. The test of psychological wellbeing measures the dimensions of autonomy (independence), environmental mastery (feelings of being able to control one’s external environment), personal growth (feelings of continued development), positive relations with others (possession of warm, satisfying, trusting relationships), purpose in life (has a sense of directedness and goals to achieve), and self-acceptance (possesses a positive attitude toward the self). Cycling may have the potential to increase some, if not all, of these positive feelings. The other tests that we have incorporated in the battery, measure life satisfaction and physical and mental health, which may also be affected by regular cycling.
As participants will be asked to complete these tests, I don’t want to give too much more away (to avoid giving them a head-start!). If you would like to find out more about these tests and complete all the tasks, sign up to the cycle BOOM wellbeing trials! You may find that taking a bicycle out for a spin down the road improves your cognition and wellbeing.
Louise Leyland is a Research Assistant on the cycle BOOM research project at Reading University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org