13 June 2013

Why Don't We Know More About Cycling and Brain Science?

To tell you that cycling is good for your health is to tell you something you likely already know. As a reader of this blog, whether you came across it because you're a customer or a friend of a customer or it was shared somewhere on a social network and you just so happened to be interested, chances are you enjoy riding a bicycle and you likely know the health benefits already. To write at length about how and, to some degree, why cycling is beneficial to your body and mind would seem a little bit redundant and very much like preaching to the choir.

This year alone, this blog has featured stories about how cycling can help you lose weight and the effect it can have on diabetes—in fact, we've written on the diabetes control/cycling link more than once.

In the last couple of weeks, during preparation for and then the actual auctioning of the 7-Eleven cycling jersey signed by Davis Phinney to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation, I was reminded of the following YouTube video about patients with Parkinson's disease and bicycling.

The first part of this video is very difficult to watch. You see a man with Parkinson's struggling with a condition called "freezing gait," and he can hardly make it a few steps down the hallway, even with help.

Cut to the second part: he's riding a bicycle around a parking lot and you'd have no idea there's anything wrong with him. He seems at ease, happy even. But when he stops and gets off of the bike, he freezes again. In February, Atlantic Cities discussed this video, and continued, quoting the NEMJ:
This striking kinesia paradoxica may be explained by the bicycle's rotating pedals, which may act as an external pacing cue. Alternatively, the motor-control mechanisms involved in gait as compared with other activities engaging the legs, such as cycling, could be affected differentially in Parkinson's disease. Cycling may offer a useful approach for exercise training in patients with Parkinson's who are “grounded” by severe freezing of gait.
It's pretty clear that studies like this one are still in very early stages. No big conclusions can be drawn; they don't reveal any real answers beyond conjecture. But what this study does reveal, however, is that there is something to the idea that cycling has a different effect on the body and mind than other exercises. Yet these studies aren't being fully explored. The video above comes to us from the Netherlands (which also explains the lack of a helmet), where cycling has long been a major form of transportation. But what about here in the U.S. or other parts of the first world where driving is still the main method of getting around?

The primary reason for the lack of major research into bicycling and brain science is this: there's no money to fund the studies. Studies are typically backed by pharmaceutical companies with deep pockets, so who's going to spend money to find results that may show a prescription isn't always necessary (or that the dosage doesn't need to be as high)?
Adam Leibovitz

In "Riding is My Ritalin," a feature published by Bicycling magazine, journalist Bruce Barcott tells Adam Leibovitz's story about how he was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid, put on medication and, because he was tired of the side effects that came with it, figured out a way to manage the disorder with a regimen of heavy cycling.

As it turns out, there were studies on ADHD and exercise happening even before it was a recognized mental health condition. In 1978, W. Mark Shipman, MD, medical director for the San Diego Center for Children, an institute for psychologically troubled kids, conducted a simple experiment. The hyperactive kids under Shipman's care were the first ones receiving doses of Ritalin. So Shipman had a group of his kids start running for 45 minutes a day, four days a week. What happened? Exactly what you might hope: the kids who ran started behaving as if they were getting extra doses of medication. Their doctors were able to begin lowering their dosage. But the kids who weren't running primarily stayed at the same level of medication. As a control, the doctors administering medication did not know what kids had been running. And the results were clear: the exercise helped.

What happened next, though, was not what you'd hope for: doctors began writing more and more prescriptions for Ritalin. Shipman's results weren't discredited—his results were even reinforced in two separate studies in the 1980s—but the American mindset toward medicine had shifted away from natural remedies and instead people sought cure-all drugs to fix their ailments.

But one of the things that's fascinating about this increase in Ritalin prescriptions is the effect it had on professional cycling. Barcott writes:
These changes have reverberated in competitive cycling, a sport filled with athletes whose behavioral traits trend toward the disorder's symptoms; at pro races and masters' events it's not uncommon to hear jokes about cyclists' ADHD-like characteristics. When I ask Jonathan Vaughters, director of the Garmin-Slipstream team, whether he's noticed ADHD-like behavior among any pro riders, he says: "Only the entire peloton." 
He is partly serious. "I think a lot of elite cyclists, if properly diagnosed, would probably be shown to have some form of ADHD," he says. Vaughters, a top pro rider in the 1990s, says his son was recently diagnosed with ADHD. "I think he gets it mainly from me," he says. (Vaughters was undiagnosed, but ADHD is often passed from parent to child.) 
One of the sport's retired champions, an Olympic gold medalist who asked not to be identified in this story, recently wondered aloud about the effects of Ritalin on the younger generation. In his day, he said, you cycled away your hyperactivity; that was partly how he got into the sport. "I wonder how many kids over the past decade got put on Ritalin instead," he said. "How many potential racers never discovered the sport?" 
In other words: How many would-be greats never found cycling because they were medicated?
It's a good question.

Think about it: why do you ride? You might start because you want to lose a few pounds and a great form of low-impact exercise so it's easy on your joints, or maybe because you want to save money on gas or bus fare. But at some point, for some of us anyway, something changes and the desire to go for a ride turns almost into a necessity. When we have to drive to work, we feel jittery and unable to focus all day. When we don't have a chance to get out for that weekend ride, might get a little irritable. All we want in the world in those moments is to feel the breeze, to pedal and grip our handlebars.

If cycling has that effect on someone without a mental health condition, can we imagine would it could do for someone with ADHD? Or depression? Or bipolar disorder? Is cycling different than other forms of exercise for people with these conditions? Can cycling help them control and manage their conditions? It's hard to say since nobody is really actively seeking the answers to these questions. So for now, all we have to go on are individual stories and conjecture. It's not much, but at least it's a start.

Has cycling helped you with your physical or mental health condition? We'd love to hear your story. Tell us about it in the comments section.


yannb said...

I truly believe that cycling helps me with my bouts of depression. If I don't ride regularly, ie 1 hour plus a day (18-20 miles) my depression kicks in. The harder I push the better I feel afterwards. I haven't been riding much lately because we got a dog and I bring him to work, can't leave him alone at home yet. This has prevented me from riding to/from work everyday for the last 2-3 months. I've noticed the effect on my mood as been quite adverse. This week I did intense 25 mile 3000 feet of climbing ride on wednesday and a quick 19 mile ride at lunch today. I felt so much better after each ride.

I'm considering getting a burley pet trailer so that I can ride to work and bring the dog.

ngiova said...

I tell everyone that my bicycle is my psychiatrist...and I mean it. If I couldn't ride I'm pretty sure I'd be hyperactive and/or suffer depression.

Dave The Wave said...

YES YES YES,Cycling has saved me ,in 2002 I was Diagnosed with a form Muscular Dystrophy and had to start wearing braces so I could walk,After 20 years as a Drifter AND a DRUNK I was Devastated ,SO I did the only thing I knew how to do at the time,I got and stayed very drunk.So the First thing I did was to get myself a bicycle so I could get around. Well let me tell you that when they say DONT DRINK and DRIVE,They really mean it WHEN IT COMES TO RIDING A BICYCLE DRUNK,DONT DO IT ,YOU WILL HURT YOURSELF.Well over the next 2 years I still rode AND fell down a lot.Some where along the way I learned of Bicycle touring and an IDEA was formed,But first I had to get sober.I was hanging out in COLORADO SPRINGS when I lost my bike a friend crashed into me and trashed my bike pretty bad.I put it into the shop expecting to be able to get it out at the First of the month,WELL BECAUSE of some LEGAl problems I had here in FLORIDA ,My Disability check was cut off,so now I have no way to get my bike OUT OF THE SHOP.BUMMER DeLUXE !!!Shortly after that I found my bottom as a DRUNK. By the grace of GOD I was able to get help with my ALCOHOLISM . The #1 thing that saved me was DREAMING of GETTING A BICYCLE and TOURING,once I came back to Florida and took care of my Legal problems my next hurdle was to get a NEW BICYCLE . Which I did .11 1/2 months later I took my first Bike tour ,just a short 400 miler BUT I had a BLAST ,AND I did it sober.So I continued my JOURNEY IN SOBRIETY,because with out that I knew I would I would have no bicycle AND no life. At 2 1/2 half years I did another tour of 1340 miles AND HAD AN EVEN BIGGER BLAST, AND once again I DID IT SOBER. well after 3 1/2 years I had a plan ,I was going to go for a REALLY LONG TOUR,well it is funny how life happens while we are making plans,I meet a GREAT lady AND my life changed once again.I now have a HOME and a wonderful lady that I share my life AND SOBRIETY with,I still ride daily ,Although my plans for a LONG TOUR have been left behind I still get to do short tours/rides of a week or so at a time AND I am very happy with that.The other thing is that by cycling I keep my legs in reasonable shape,There is NOTHING I can do to STOP the progression of my Muscular Dystrophy ,BUT BY RIDING DAILY I BELIEVE that it SLOWS IT DOWN SOME and keeps me healthy.The other thing riding does for me is to help keep me SOBER. It is a GREAT TOOL in my SOBRIETY,I believe that WITHOUT CYCLING I would NOT be sober AND I also think my Muscular Dystrophy would be MUCH WORSE, my motto is RIDE HARD LIVE FREE, and by doing that I do LIVE FREE,free to be who I am ,Free to be healthy and BEST OF ALL FREE FROM THE BONDS OF MY ALCOHOLISM. so that is my story. as always RIDE HARD LIVE FREE

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