You’ve probably heard the saying that you never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychiatrist’s office. That saying is actually a true reflection of reality – motorcycle riding is good for your health, both mentally and physically. In this article, we back that claim up with a look at some scientific studies that give credence to this, both for your waistline and your state of mind.
Let’s look at the brain first. There have actually been a number of studies on the cognitive benefits of motorcycle riding. The best known study in this field was by the Ryuta Kawashima Laboratory of the Department of Functional Brain Imaging, Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer at Tohoku University. Its results were as follows:
- When riding a motorcycle, the brain of the rider is stimulated.
- Differences in brain use and level of brain stimulation can be observed in motorcyclists who ride regularly and in motorcyclists who have not ridden for extended periods (at least 10 years).
- Incorporating motorcycle riding into daily life improves various cognitive functions (particularly prefrontal cortex functions) and has positive effects on mental and emotional health such as stress reduction.
The study looked at two groups of people – riders who regularly rode to work each day and those that did not. It found that for the riders, the right hemisphere of their prefrontal lobe was activated while riding, demonstrating higher levels of concentration. Then the ‘ex-riders’ were tasked with riding regularly over a number of months. The result?
Cognitive functions, especially those relating to memory and spatial reasoning capacity increased dramatically. Those riders also stated that their stress levels had been reduced markedly and mentally they felt much more positive.
Dr Ryuta Kawashima explained these results: “There were many studies done on driving cars in the past. A car is a comfortable machine which does not activate our brains. It only happens when going across a railway crossing or when a person jumps in front of us. By using motorcycles more in our life, we can have positive effects on our brains and minds”.
Anecdotally we could probably all agree with this from our own experiences. Motorcycle riding affords a real freedom that many other pursuits cannot. Being able to reduce stress by going for a ride in the canyons, or even because a rider can filter through gridlocked traffic add to this. The well known book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ paints a picture of this too.
We opined about this in our article, I Ride a Motorcycle, Therefore I am Better Than You last year:
I see other riders doing the amazing, the beautiful. Riding through Egypt, Nepal, the Andes, visiting remote and distance parts of this amazing planet. But instead, you enjoy your cruise on a boat full of self-absorbed people who think learning about and understanding other cultures involves a day trip to their local beach.
Even the worst things of modern life turn into positives on a motorcycle. While you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway doing your daily two hour commute, I’m riding past you between your car and every other person who feels the need to drive a five occupant vehicle with just themselves to their daily grind.
The good news however is that the benefits of motorcycle riding aren’t limited to our minds. It might help lower your cholesterol levels too.
Even on a casual ride, you burn calories while riding a motorcycle. Firstly, being exposed to buffeting winds and natures other elements means you use your muscles far more than in a car – it also has the added side effect of increasing muscle strength as you tense and flex. But you’re also burning calories from the varied and involved control inputs of the bike, such as balancing at low speeds, cornering and even braking.
And just like your fuel tank, the faster you go the faster you burn energy. If your carving through the canyons and riding the bike correctly (by putting all your weight through your legs into the pegs and not the bars) you’ll actually give yourself quite a workout. Anyone that does infrequent track days will tell you that a 15 minute session is generally plenty of time for you to work up a sweat and require a rest. It’s estimated that riding a motorcycle burns between 200 and 300 calories an hour – that’s about as much as a leisurely walk would burn.
Head off-road though and you’ll start to seriously lose some weight. A Canadian study showed that off-road motorcycle riders are less likely to have physical limitations or health problems compared to the general population. The study, by Dr Jamie Burr found that regular trail riding is an effective way to lose fat and gain muscle, increase endurance and lower blood pressure.
When you analyse the biomechanics of trails riding, it’s easy to see why. In an interview, Dr Burr wrote that exertion of off-road riding is “Similar to the effects of jogging and it is a lot like hitting the gym. Balancing on off-road motorcycles is like sitting on a stability ball, controlling the handlebars is like doing bench presses and seated rows or upright rows. Standing up and down would be like squats or deep knee bends. Standing on the pegs is like doing toe raises”.
For those that do hit the trails, it’s estimated that the body’s energy consumption is as high as 600 calories an hour.
So next time you need to go on a health kick, don’t worry about the gym membership. Instead, sell the treadmill sitting in your garage and replace it with another bike. Because having two bikes is surely better for your health than just one.