UCLA study, says motorcycling reduces stress, increases alertness
By Rick Barrett
In a motorcycle industry that’s strapped for bike sales, Harley-Davidson Inc. has turned to neuroscience to better understand riders. Motorcyclists have always said there’s no better prescription for stress than riding a bike, even for a short time, as you lean your body into the wind and forget about everything else. Now, a study from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, at the University of California, Los Angeles, seems to confirm that.
The study, funded by Harley-Davidson Inc., demonstrated potential mental and physical benefits of riding, including decreased levels of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress.
Three UCLA researchers studied more than 50 motorcycle riders in tests that recorded their brain activity and hormone levels before, during and after riding a bike, driving a car and resting. The bike ride resulted in a 28 percent decrease in biomarkers of stress, according to the researchers. On average, riding a motorcycle for 20 minutes increased participants’ heart rates by 11 percent and adrenaline levels by 27 percent, similar to light exercise.
Changes in the riders’ brain activity suggested an increase in alertness similar to drinking a cup of coffee. Sensory focus was enhanced while riding, versus driving a car, meaning that riders were more alert to what was going on around them. Harley-Davidson says the study’s findings validate what it’s known for more than a century: that riding is good for your mental health. The company has struggled to attract younger customers in a marketplace where fewer people are taking up motorcycling and baby boomers are aging out of riding. So it’s seeking new ways to sell bikes. “We’re leveraging the latest technologies as we shift our focus from exclusively motorcycles to growing ridership, so it only made sense to tap technology to explore the impact of riding itself,” said Heather Malenshek, Harley’s senior vice president of marketing.
On the bike, many riders say they tune out anything that’s not relevant to the road. The study, which used electroencephalogram equipment to measure brain activity, seemed to validate that point. “We knew riders had reported that motorcycles gave them peace of mind, but no one had really rigorously quantified it before,” said one of the researchers, neuroscientist Don Vaughn. “When I measured it, these were just the facts I observed,” he said.
The study included men and women across a wide age spectrum. Some had been riders their entire adult lives, while others had ridden for only a few years. In the tests, they rode for about 20 minutes on somewhat rural roads, in two locations, where there was other traffic but it wasn’t too intense. They wore what looked like a swimmer’s cap, with electrodes, to measure their brain waves while on a bike and while engaged in other activities such as driving a car. “Measuring brain activity is challenging,” Vaughn said, “because the signal is only one-millionth the strength of a AA battery.” Much different than in a laboratory setting, it sometimes took 40 minutes to adjust the cap and make sure the electrodes had a solid connection. “While scientists have long studied the relationship of brain and hormone responses to attention and stress, doing so in real-life conditions such as these is rare,” said Mark Cohen, a UCLA professor who was part of the study’s research team. The reduction in hormonal biomarkers while riding was notable, according to the researchers, though you could probably get a similar stress reduction in other ways, such as going for a morning jog or playing a round of golf. “It’s not going to completely alter your perception of reality, but it’s significant,” said Vaughn, who is not a motorcyclist. Too much stress has long been associated with negative health effects.
“I would take any reduction in stress,” Vaughn said. The researchers said they’re considering more experiments before submitting the results of their study for peer review and publication in a science journal such as Nature. “In our minds, this is the first time a study like this has ever been done. We think it’s pushing the limits of what can be measured,” Vaughn said.