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UCLA study, funded by Harley-Davidson, says motorcycling reduces stress, increases alertness

A UCLA study that measured the effects of motorcycle riding on stress reduction used electroencephalogram equipment, which looks like a swimmer's cap, on study participants (Photo: Harley-Davidson)

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.

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