If you could be smarter, healthier, less stressed, have more money and combat pollution all at once, would you?
I can only assume the answer is "yes." And while it sounds like a fantasy, or some kind of late night infomercial, it really isn't. If you live in a city or suburb, you could move towards achieving those things with one simple investment: a bicycle.
A few months ago, I bought the first bike I've owned since I was a kid. Living in New York City, I had always thought a car or bike would be useless. After all, we have one of the best public transportation systems in the world. With a MetroCard and a little sense of direction, you can use a bus or train to get almost anywhere you want.
But after dozens of subway delays and awkwardly placed destinations that weren't near a subway stop, I started considering how a bike would help me. At first, the investment of a few hundred dollars seemed worth it to get around quicker and save money on subway fares. Soon after, I found that the benefits were far greater than a little extra time or pocket change.
The bike I bought in Harlem, for less than $400 brand new.
On one of the first days I rode my bike from Harlem to Midtown for work, about a five-mile trip, I realized at 11 a.m. that I had a more energetic and productive morning than I'd had in weeks. When I got to work I felt focused, awake and motivated. I wondered if I had felt more energized or less lazy just because I was feeling accomplished from my bike ride. It wasn't until I looked it up, though, that I realized what I was feeling wasn't just my imagination.
In 2013, the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research published a study on the acute effects of aerobic exercise on healthy adult males. In it, researchers found that after 30 minutes of pedaling on a stationary bike, participants scored higher on memory, reasoning and planning tests, and even completed the tests faster than the control group.
Taking a ride before a big test or a tough day at work isn't the only brain-positive reason for getting a bicycle. Numerous studies have shown that exercise — even just five minutes, or a bike ride to the store — can decrease tension, help you sleep, improve your self-image and stabilize your mood.
It's also no secret that exercise does a lot for your health. Americans are notoriously overweight, and in urban areas good, healthy food is becoming harder and harder to find. While hopping on a bike doesn't fix your diet, a simple ride to and from work can provide a good chunk of the exercise you should be getting in any given week.
NutriStrategy showed that an easy bike ride, at speeds less than 10 miles per hour, burns more calories than a leisurely walk. It's not just efficient, though: it's also safe. While biking in a city street incurs some danger, the wear and tear on your body is nothing like the one you get from running or lifting. Even my dad, who has had knee surgery and still has trouble walking after a day of standing, loves taking off for a few hours to hit the bike paths.
Low impact exercises like biking are hard to come by. Swimming is another option, but access to open water isn't as easy to find as a bike and a road. In fact, bike-sharing programs have started to explode across the United States. There is now a bike share program in almost every major city in America, and they're in dozens of mid-sized and small cities, too. From New York City's CitiBike, which announced an expansion to 12,000 bikes in 2014, to Aspen, Colorado's 100 bike program, the idea of shared biking is spreading like wildfire.
There are a few reasons for the explosion of biking systems in cities, and all of them are tied to the benefits of biking itself. For one, it makes transportation far easier. Even if you're just using a shared bike to get to a bus or train stop quicker, it's a great alternative to walking, running or getting a taxi or Uber. As CitiBike advertises: "faster than walking, cheaper than a taxi."
Having bikes also reduces agonizing traffic congestion, and in Mexico City — one of the world's most densely populated places — reducing traffic congestion came with many benefits. A decrease in cars on the road lowered the country's carbon footprint, which benefited the environment. Less traffic meant less smog and better air, which proved a boon to citizens' health. And healthier citizens meant reduced cost to public health programs. All because having more bikes and fewer cars created a dramatic effect on the space people were living in.
Which brings me to the environmental impact: Americans can try their hardest, but ignoring the quality of our air won't make it any better. While smog has cleared in some of America's biggest cities since 1980, our air actually isn't much safer to breathe. The American Lung Association said 148 million Americans live in areas where smog and soot have led to unhealthy levels of pollution.
Unfortunately, that problem is getting worse. Some of the United States' biggest cities have seen deteriorating air quality in the last few years, and many experts say concentrations of that poor air is prominent on city streets where pollution from motor vehicles gets trapped by big buildings. If more Americans took a serious look at transportation alternatives like biking, we might see some positive movement in our quest for cleaner air.
Since I bought my bike just a few months ago, I've already had a few dozen instances when I was able to ride somewhere instead of taking a cab or subway. At $2.75 a ride, getting to and from one of those destinations would cost $5.50 a trip. That means after 72 instances of riding my bike instead of taking a subway, I'll already have paid the bike off. Throw in cab rides for bikeable trips, which could run anywhere from $5 to $25 dollars, and the bike becomes a worthwhile investment in no time.
Still, if more money, better health and a clearer mind aren't enough, consider this: tackling health and environmental issues almost always sounds like a chore. Nobody likes dieting or recycling, but biking is actually fun. Yes, this low-cost, healthy, good-for-your-brain hobby isn't tenuous or challenging or boring. It's fun! It can be exhilarating or relaxing, and often times just makes you feel like a kid again.
And it's not just great in cities. Picking up a habit like biking is a great idea in any place. But if you're living in America, and especially if you're living in a city, it's a no-brainer.
In a country with one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, where seven out of ten American adults say they experience stress or anxiety daily, where attention spans are plummeting and where air quality is getting worse, I'm telling you that one simple hobby could help combat it all. And all you have to do is climb on a bike and ride.
Isaac Saul is a reporter for A Plus and author of his weekly column "A Grain of Saul." You can follow him on Twitter.
Cover photo: Isaac Saul