Lifestyle and sport riders alike will tell you how motorcycles can be both thrilling and relaxing — as a form of stress relief, and even palliative therapy. The recently released results of a new neurobiological study discuss the science behind these claims. Turns out that what motorcycle enthusiasts have known for generations is scientifically true.

The study, entitled “The Mental and Physical Effects of Riding a Motorcycle” (Catalyst Agency LLC), was funded by Harley-Davidson and carried out by three researchers from UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. The final samples of 38 to 46 participants recruited in Southern California were usable. The study compared the effects of people riding their own motorcycles compared to rest, and driving a provided car (Lexus NX200). Brain and heart activity were recorded using wearable electrodes, via EEG and EKG. Hormones were measured from saliva and urine.

UCLA study: Riding motorcycles is good for your health image

The researchers measured the focus, heart rate, and hormones of each test subject before, during, and immediately after a 22-minute motorcycle ride. They concluded that motorcycle riding can be as effective as light exercise in reducing stress, a known health hazard. Enjoying an invigorating ride on a clear, sweeping road is likely to be as beneficial as a morning jog, yoga session, and round of golf.

Riding motorcycles increased the heart rate of participants by 11% compared to rest, and by 7% compared to driving. Riding also significantly increased levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) by 27%, while driving did not incite a similar effect. Riding significantly decreased the ratio of the stress biomarker cortisol to DHEA-S by 28%. This data suggests that riding arouses the sympathetic nervous system and the researchers compared the activity to light exercise.

The researchers also played auditory “standard” or “oddball” tones to the riders to monitor their auditory brain responses. They found that riding motorcycles heightens sensory processing and enhances attention via two mechanisms: strengthening focus and the brain’s passive monitoring of changes in the sensory environment. The scientists likened this phenomenon to drinking a cup of coffee.

The researchers were quick to remind us that the results do not examine any long-term effects that riding may have on stress. On another note, these tests were conducted around the Angeles Crest Highway outside Los Angeles, and Mesa Grande at Lake Henshaw. Riding in different conditions may produce different results. The study also did not describe details of the riding and driving.

“The brain is an amazingly complex organ and it’s fascinating to rigorously investigate the physical and mental effects riders report… The differences in participants’ neurological and physiological responses between riding and other measured activities were quite pronounced,” said Dr. Don Vaughn, the neuroscientist who led the research team, in a press release. “This could be significant for mitigating everyday stresses.”

“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,” said Dr. Mark Cohen, UCLA Professor and senior team member. “No lab experiment can duplicate the feelings that a motorcyclist would have on the open road.”

“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. 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," said Heather Malenshek, Harley-Davidson’s Senior Vice President of Marketing & Brand. "We hope their findings inspire the next generation of riders to experience these benefits along with us.”