What If Bike Lanes Are Better Than Drugs?

High ho, high ho, it's off to work we go... (Getty)

Maybe there’s a simple explanation why two-thirds of New Yorkers like bike lanes—they also like getting high.

The Observer just stumbled upon a two-year-old article from Bicycling magazine (h/t @nytjim) that has a new significance in light of the current bicycle backlash. The story explores the connection between bike riding and Ritalin, or rather how daily pedaling can help reduce the impact of ADHD.

He doesn’t know how the cycling clears his head, allows him to focus. All he knows is that it works. “Riding,” he says, “is my Ritalin.”

What is really going on inside Adam Leibovitz’s brain?

It probably isn’t the endorphins, which mainly affect pain suppression and mood elevation. Researchers now understand that the clearing effect more likely has to do with a different, but similarly mysterious, process centered in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that plays an important role in movement, coordination, attention and learning. The most accepted theory about ADHD is that it’s largely caused by a deficit of neurotransmitters, which relay signals to and from the basal ganglia. Ritalin works by boosting the concentration of two neurotransmitters in particular: dopamine and norepinephrine. Adam’s rigorous race training most likely caused his body to produce the same effect.


And it’s not just any exercise. Some activities are better brain boosters, and cycling is one of the best. David Conant-Norville, MD, a psychiatrist in Beaverton, Oregon, who specializes in adolescents and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recently surveyed his colleagues about the best and worst sports for athletes with ADHD. Cycling, swimming and running are tops. At the bottom are soccer, hockey and baseball. The best sports demanded constant physical exertion and a suite of technical movements that engaged brain functions dealing with balance, timing, error correction, decision-making and focus.

So not only is cycling good for your heart (exercise) and your lungs (pollution) but also your head. In a city as frenetic and demanding as New York, who couldn’t use a little more focus each morning after a nice ride downtown or over the bridge?

Now if only we could figure out a way to get magazines to stop stringing out feature stories across nine pages on their websites, we might finally be able to get some work done around here.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC What If Bike Lanes Are Better Than Drugs?