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Dr. Zorba Paster: Good for the body and the brain

March 22, 2019 GMT

I love to bike. As soon as the weather turns nice, I’m ready to pump up my tires and ride. I am, as you might have guessed, a fair-weather biker. But then again, just look at how many more of us are on the bike trails now compared to January. Most of us are not hard-core types, out to bike no matter what the weather is. We’re out there for the fun and games.

As I get older, I find the hills seem higher and longer. What used to be just stand up and get to the top is now more of a slog. And I am not alone. There are many my age who find they would bike more if they could have a bit of assistance. I’m not talking about staff to pull me up the hill, but perhaps a little help from my friends — and by that I mean electronics.

Electric assist bikes have become more and more popular. I first used one when I was in Spokane, Washington. I was visiting their great radio station when someone asked what I would like to do. I was out there to speak and had some free time on my hands. I said biking would be nice — it was sunny and comfortably warm — so off we went.

On my tour, I noticed one of the folks riding with me was making it to the top of the hills without sweating. On every hill, she arrived first, faster than some of the younger folks in the gang — 20 years younger, in fact. I finally asked her how she did it and that’s when she pointed to the battery. I was smitten.

So will folks still get a health benefit from using e-bikes or is all the benefit taken out of them because a rider isn’t working as hard? According to new research out of the U.K.’s Oxford Brookes University, e-bikes may not make your legs as strong but they just may be good for your brain. Biking for the brain? I call that a smart topic to explore.

Researchers wanted to look at “executive function,” the ability to take information and process it, as well as processing speed. This is not the same as memorization, something that usually deteriorates with age.

They wanted to see if biking would improve performance on various adult IQ-type tests. There were three groups: non-bikers, a regular bike group and an e-bike group, where people would pedal when they wanted and use the battery assist when they wanted. The bikers were required to ride for an hour and a half every week for a two-month period.

My first thought was that regular biking would be better. It’s more aerobic and it takes more energy. But I was wrong. The e-bike people scored better on testing than the regular pedal pushers. Both groups, by the way, improved their test scores with biking, and their mental health — their attitude scores — also rose.

My spin: Many studies show that exercise and stimulation improve brain function and well-being in older adults. Biking outdoors is not just good for your body but good for your brain. On a bike, you look around, you balance, you take in the fresh air, you check out the scenery, and that stimulates your mind. It’s good for the body and good for the brain — a real win-win. Stay well.