Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

Steve Lita American Iron Magazine Editor

Steve Lita, American Iron Magazine Editor

RIDE TO WORK by Steve Lita, Editor

…you don’t have to look too hard to notice the difference riding a motorcycle makes

I recently received an e-mail from Harley-Davidson media relations department with the following in the subject line: RIDING A MOTORCYCLE IMPROVED METRICS OF FOCUS AND DECREASED STRESS BIOMARKERS, ACCORDING TO A NEW NEUROBIOLOGICAL STUDY. Phew—that was a mouthful. The e-mail itself recounted a recent neurobiological study, funded by Harley-Davidson, which essentially tells riders something we already know. But we didn’t know why. Well, now we have scientific proof.

After plowing through the two-page synopsis of the study my knee-jerk reaction was a typical snarky retort, something completely nonscientific like, “Well, yeah, duh. Who doesn’t know that?” But after further consideration and reading it again, I concluded that the big bucks Harley undoubtedly spent on this study were not wasted. In this day and age of fake news in the media, sensationalism in attention-starved newspapers, and absolute lies spewed forth via social media, maybe some real data that stands on its own two feet will help convince more folks to join the riding fraternity.

The study was conducted by a team of three researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and provided evidence for the potential mental and physical benefits of riding a motorcycle. The study found that motorcycling increased focus and attention, and decreased relative levels of cortisol, which is a hormonal marker of stress. One subhead in the report indicated: Motorcycling decreased stress-measures, similar to light exercise. I am really going to enjoy telling my doctor when I go in for my next exam, “Yes, doc, I have been exercising.”

The research team monitored participants’ electrical brain activity and heartrate, as well as levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, and measured the biological and physiological responses of more than 50 experienced motorcyclists. 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 resistance to distraction. Riding also produced an increase in adrenaline levels and heartrate, as well as a decrease in cortisol metrics, results often associated with stress-reduction. It all makes sense, really. Riders have often said that riding helps clear their heads; exposing ourselves to the elements and speed of riding is sure to raise the heartrate and increase our focus.

Here are some other highlights from the study. Riding a motorcycle decreased hormonal biomarkers of stress by 28 percent. That’s a stout number. Riding a motorcycle for 20 minutes increased heartrates by 11 percent and adrenaline levels by 27 percent. Sensory focus was enhanced while riding a motorcycle versus driving a car, which makes perfect sense, but it also worries me thinking about all those people driving cars in the next lane. And changes in brain activity while riding suggested an increase in alertness similar to drinking a cup of coffee. That tells me just how important my daily coffee is to me.

One notable quote in the report was from Dr. Don Vaughn, the neuroscientist who led the research team: “The differences in participants’ neurological and physiological responses between riding and other measured activities were quite pronounced, [which] could be significant for mitigating everyday stresses.” Sounds to me like you don’t have to look very hard to notice the difference riding a motorcycle makes to a person.

The last part of the report was a blatant attempt by Harley to put a marketing spin on the study and get people to sign up for its Harley-Davidson Riding Academy New Rider Course. Can’t say I blame them, they have to pay for this research somehow. And after a quick scan of several motorcycle manufacturers’ websites, I’d say Harley is promoting new ridership a little more than some of its competitors. It’s right there on its website, Harley-Davidson.com, top of the page, a Learn To Ride link. Thanks, Harley, for helping the motorcycling big picture, providing data I can point to when people ask me why I ride, and giving me an excuse to skip the gym again.