Motorcyclists have long championed riding as their main road to stress relief and positive mental health. The results of a neurobiological study conducted by a team of three researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior yielded pioneering scientific evidence revealing the potential mental and physical benefits of riding. Funded by Harley-Davidson, the study found that motorcycling increased metrics of focus and attention, and decreased relative levels of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress.
Researchers recorded participants’ brain activity and hormone levels before, during and after motorcycling, driving a car and resting. While riding a motorcycle, participants experienced increased sensory focus and resilience to distraction. Riding also produced an increase in adrenaline levels and heart rate, as well as a decrease in cortisol metrics – results often associated with light exercise and stress-reduction.
“Stress levels, especially among young adults, continue to rise, and people are exploring pathways to better their mental and physical health. Until recently, the technology to rigorously measure the impact of activities like motorcycling on the brain didn’t exist,” said Dr. Don Vaughn, the neuroscientist who led the research team. “The brain is an amazingly complex organ and it’s fascinating to rigorously investigate the physical and mental effects riders report.”
- Riding a motorcycle decreased hormonal biomarkers of stress by 28 percent
- 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
- Sensory focus was enhanced while riding a motorcycle versus driving a car, an effect also observed in experienced meditators vs non-meditators
- Changes in study participants’ brain activity while riding suggested an increase in alertness similar to drinking a cup of coffee
“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,” explained UCLA Professor and senior team member, Dr. Mark Cohen. “No lab experiment can duplicate the feelings that a motorcyclist would have on the open road.”
“The differences in participants’ neurological and physiological responses between riding and other measured activities were quite pronounced,” Dr. Vaughn added. “This could be significant for mitigating everyday stresses.”
The research team monitored participants’ electrical brain activity and heart rate, as well as levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. To be presented later this year, the Harley-Davidson funded study, entitled “The mental and physical effects of riding a motorcycle” measured the biological and physiological responses of more than 50 experienced motorcyclists, using mobile EEG technology.
“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-Davidson’s senior vice president of marketing and brand. “The research findings Dr. Vaughn and his team identified helps explain what our riders have felt for the past 116 years – there’s a vitality and heightened sensory experience that comes from the freedom of riding a motorcycle. We hope their findings inspire the next generation of riders to experience these benefits along with us.”