Motorcycle Therapy is Real

How is motorcycling the ultimate stress reducer?

Motorcyclists have long expressed that going for a ride is a stress reducing experience and essential for their mental wellness. But, when you’re vulnerably propelling yourself along the street without airbags or a car frame to protect yourself, how is it that people call motorcycling “throttle therapy?” Moto enthusiasts cite lots of aspects about riding that are stress reducing, but I theorize that one of the strongest factors is the very stance you assume when you get on the motorcycle.


The Mind-Body Connection

Riding a bike forces your body into an open and strong posture, it is impossible to do it with your arms crossed or with other closed body language. Scientists have long studied the connection between the mind and body, and more recently have cited that the mind can follow suit and change our internal chemistry according to physical queues. Thanks to recent innovations in neuroscience, we can now rigorously measure these effects on the brain. This is the basis of social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s book Presence, where she advocates for the instant hormone balancing qualities of power posing. Adopting a powerful and competent stance, like you’re obligated to do while riding a motorcycle, triggers the brain to reduce the production of cortisol and increase the production of testosterone. Cortisol is the hormone related most closely to stress and anxiety. Appropriate levels of cortisol lands someone in the optimal performance zone, homing in on focus, reaction time, decision making, and precision. As motorcyclists we all know how life saving being at peak performance and alertness can be.


The optimal performance zone combines focus, reaction time, decision making, and precision
Appropriate levels are crucial for performance (graphic by Meghan Stark)

While power posing contributes to stress relief, you don’t want to be completely worry free in a time when you need to perform. Hence the need for balance (in more ways than one in our case). According to a Travis Bradberry article on Forbes,

“Our brains are hard-wired such that it’s difficult to take action until we feel some level of anxiety. In fact, performance peaks under the heightened activation that comes with moderate levels of anxiety.”

If one is too relaxed, you’re at risk of inattention and boredom, and if you’re too anxious, you can become too reactive and chaotic. On a motorcycle this can lead to dire consequences.


Motorcyclist at the ready mounted on a Ducati Scrambler
The default motorcycle riding position is a power pose (photo by Meghan Stark)

The power pose of a motorcycle is the perfect balance between these two extremes, which ultimately conjures the focus necessary to operate the bike on the road. Your open posture places you physically above the controls, and more often than not riders are in a fully upright or more aggressive forward lean. It’s comfortable enough to maintain for long periods of time, but not so comfortable that you’re lulled into full relaxation.


Motorcycle Riding Reduces Stress & Optimizes Performance

This correlation between stress reduction, peak performance, and riding is further supported by the Harley-Davidson funded neurobiological study conducted by a small team of researchers at UCLA.


Motorcycle stress reduction statistics
Average results from riding a motorcycle on a familiar route for 20 minutes (Graphic by Meghan Stark)

Some key takeaways from this motorcycle specific study* found that riding a bike decreased hormonal biomarkers of stress by 28%, and on average, riding a motorcycle for 20 minutes increased participants’ heart rates by 11% and adrenaline levels by 27% — 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.

On average, riding a motorcycle for 20 minutes increased heart rates by 11% and adrenaline levels by 27% — similar to light exercise

While there’s likely a variety of factors affecting these results, I’d venture to guess that the power pose of riding puts a motorcyclist in the optimal stance to receive the benefits of both stress reduction and alertness. These neurological benefits are similar to those derived from yoga, meditation, and like the study cited, light exercise.


So if you want to have the perfect balance between unwinding and staying sharp, taking your motorcycle for a spin is one of the best ways to center yourself after a long day.


It’s worth noting that the study was of healthy, experienced adults, riding their own motorcycles on a designated 22-minute route, under normal conditions. There’s no doubt that being an inexperienced rider, being in unideal conditions, or in unfamiliar surroundings can result in an increased stress response.


Sources

Amy Cuddy, Presence (2015) → https://amzn.to/3cSvAK7


“Riding a motorcycle improved metrics of focus and decreased stress biomarkers, according to a new neurobiological study” (2019) → https://www.harley-davidson.com/us/en/about-us/hd-news/2019/Harley-Davidson-Riding-Study-Press-Release.html


“How Successful People Handle Stress” Travis Bradberry, Forbes (2015) → https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2015/05/26/how-successful-people-turn-stress-and-anxiety-into-top-performance/#38e123523867