Does Virtual Cycling Make Us Smarter?

Recent research suggests cycling improves memory and mental health. Virtual Cycling has all the elements of the perfect brainstorm!

If you’ve ridden with the C. Cadence Pace Partner recently and read some of the chat conversations, you may not believe it. However, it’s difficult to deny that even though you’re tired after an engaging ride or challenging training session, you’re often more mentally sharp and aware. It’s not only a feeling. Science says cycling improves memory too.

Recent media has grasped the notion that exercise profoundly affects our mental state. An active lifestyle is said to improve mood, stave off the devastating effects of depression, and increase lifespan.

The scientific discovery linking exercise to the growth of nervous tissue in the adult brain has transformed how we think about the exercise-brain connection. Exercise spurs neuron growth when the brain is involved.

Zwift virtual Cycling Improves Memory
Photo courtesy of TLBVelo Photography

The Exercise-Brain Connection—Cycling Improves Memory

Exactly how cycling improves memory requires more research, but some scientists believe we’ve evolved to thrive with a certain kind of exercise. The positive effect of exercise on cognition may also develop with virtual cycling and other types of activity that benefit the brain, known as dual-task training or neuromotor exercise.

David Raichlen and his research team at USC use our evolutionary history to explain the theoretical connection. When early man adopted a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, it led to increased aerobic activity for survival. Not only that, hunting and gathering honed their spatial navigation, memory, motor control, and executive function—it was a matter of life or death.

Hunting, Gathering, and Virtual Cycling Improves Memory

An evolutionary-neuroscience approach is behind the Adaptive Capacity Model (ACM), and according to Raichlen, “The ACM suggests that our evolutionary history as cognitively engaged, “endurance athletes” during foraging led to enhanced neural responses to exercise. In addition, when faced with chronic inactivity over the lifespan common to modern industrialized societies, our brains adaptively reduce capacity as part of an energy-saving strategy, leading to age-related brain atrophy.” [Raichlen et al. 2017]

 

Scientists offer evidence of the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming novel neural connections in the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, after high-intensity cycling interval training in this September 2022 study.

 

A recent study published in Current Biology supports the notion by revealing exercise enhances the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term. Individuals who exercised four hours after a memory test retained the information better 24 hours later. [van Dongen et al. 2016

 

The same is true for children, adolescents, and the developing brain. Published in the journal Environmental Research and Public Health, a September 2022 study of 52 teen boys and girls showed up to a 26 percent improvement in memory testing after four months of endurance training and even pointed to specific exercise movements. [Polevoy et al. 2022

 

According to a paper published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, exercise may protect you from developing a mood disorder. The review, which included nearly 267,000 people, revealed that those with high physical activity levels were significantly less likely to develop depression.

Cycling Improves children Memory

Working the Body and Memory

Pedaling to propel an avatar through the hyperstimulating virtual cycling metaverse is not the same as remembering the exact spot to find life-sustaining food and water or the coordination and skill required to fend off a saber-toothed tiger attack. To evolutionary neuroscientists, it’s all the same, the combination of aerobic exercise and cognitive engagement stimulates the preservation and increase of our brain capacity. In short, engaging your intellect while you exercise enhances brain activity more than you would with a less cognitively demanding workout.


Researchers at Union College support Raichlen’s claim by studying cognitive-motor connections in individuals performing mental tasks while navigating and pedaling a bike. [Cay Anderson-Hanley et al. 2018] The University of North Florida psychology professor Tracy Packiam Alloway observed that barefoot runners who focused on stepping on objects exhibited a 20% improvement in working memory. [Tracy Packiam Alloway et al. 2016]

Combining exercise with brain-stimulating tasks benefits individuals with autism and impaired mental function. Clinical researcher Christina Whelen, PhD., and her colleagues found that computer games increased motivation and attention compared to traditional methods of teaching children with autism. If Raichlen’s theory is correct, the brain changes point to neuromotor exercise as a promising lifestyle intervention holding the key to therapeutic options for healthy aging and neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s.

The Perfect Brain Training

The research shows that it isn’t as simple as a direct one-to-one relationship between an enhanced effect of exercising while playing a video game versus exercising alone. There is more to it, and virtual cycling has the potential to unlock endless possibilities. The key is linking aerobic activities while challenging our mental acuity, just as our ancestors did to survive. That’s how virtual cycling improves memory and mental well-being.

 

It means challenging your spatial awareness by varying your route or optimizing the benefits of the draft through position in the group. Strategy during races and group ride scenarios will strengthen the brain’s decision-making centers. Multitasking is a must, and focus is your friend when riding and racing in the virtual world, and all help to keep our minds as strong as our bodies. Virtual cycling is the intersection of body and mind. 

virtual Cycling Improves Memory Zwift avatar
Photo courtesy of TLBVelo Photography

Conclusion

Put another check in the “All the great things about virtual cycling” column. By keeping our minds in mind, the virtual cycling experience can improve our physical health and augment our mental well-being. Ride your bike and improve your brainpower. It seems wise to me.

What do you think?

Put that powerful intellect to work. Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

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