It’s Mental Health Awareness Week from 18-24 May. Here’s how regular cycling can play a key role in your mental wellbeing.
The physical health benefits of riding a bike are well known. The mental health benefits are less well documented but just as important. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, according to the charity Mind. This year it could well be higher. Anxiety, fear, a feeling of not being in control – these are normal responses to a pandemic. For some people, the pandemic will be a tipping point: they’ll experience clinical anxiety or depression for the first time; or conditions that they already have will become unmanageable. It would be wrong to imply that cycling is a panacea for these problems. Yet it can help.
Physical activity in general is good for our mental wellbeing, wherever we happen to be on the mental health spectrum. Mind notes that physical activity “is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety across all age groups” and that it “can improve mental health”. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has returned from a bike ride with a better mood and a clearer head than when they set off. It’s not merely anecdotal either. Physical activity – it need not be ‘exercise’ in the sporty sense – has been proven to provide the following.
Better sleep. It’s obvious but easy to overlook: physical activity makes you more tired and being tired makes you sleep better. Poor sleep, meanwhile, contributes to anxiety and depression.
Better mood. A whopping 82% of Cyclescheme participants say that they’re less stressed thanks to cycling. The Mental Health Foundation backs up this finding, saying: “Physical activity can reduce levels of anxiety in people with mild symptoms and may also be helpful for treating clinical anxiety.” Riding your bike releases feel-good hormones, so you feel less stressed, more energised, and just better in yourself.
Reduced risk of depression. Daily physical activity lowers your risk of becoming depressed by 20-30%, according to The Mental Health Foundation. (Interestingly, it also reduces your risk of dementia by the same amount.)
Improved self-esteem. Physical activity makes us feel better about ourselves. Maybe we’ve met certain goals or ambitions? Perhaps we just feel satisfied that we’ve done something with our day? Among Cyclescheme participants, 48% reported feeling happier and more confident since starting cycling to work.
Why cycle, you might wonder, given that you can these benefits from working out in a gym or playing five-a-side football? Cycling has a number of advantages.
Cycling is compatible with social distancing. Along with jogging and going for a walk, cycling is an activity you can do by yourself or with members of your household. That’s why it was explicitly endorsed by the Government in its pandemic response, and why bike shops were allowed to stay open.
Cycling is accessible. Bikes are relatively cheap to buy and use – especially if you get one through Cyclescheme. Most of us are capable of riding one, and you don’t need a special venue; you can set off from your own back door.
Cycling is transport. So it can easily be integrated into your day. Whether you’re travelling to work or buying groceries, you can go by bike. You can’t swim to work or bench-press your way to the shops; you have to dedicate time to those forms of exercise. Cycling gives you exercise as a happy side effect of travelling somewhere.
Cycling takes place outdoors. Just being outside boosts your vitamin D levels. On top of that, The Mental Health Foundation reports: “research suggests that doing physical activity in an outdoor, ‘green’ environment has greater positive effects on wellbeing compared to physical activity indoors.” On a bike, you can reach such environments, escaping streets to ride along country lanes, quiet canal-sides, or forest tracks. It’s liberating. Contrast that to working out in a gym or jogging along a suburban pavement, where the sense of eyes being on you may heighten your anxiety.
Cycling promotes mindfulness. On a bike, you naturally focus on the scenery scrolling past your eyes, on the wind in your hair, on the sounds of nature, and the smells of spring flowers in bloom. This helps prevent your thoughts from drifting to darker places.
Cycling is fun. Some forms of physical activity only really make you feel good when you stop, when the exercise endorphins kick in. Anything in the gym, for example. Other activities just aren’t that interesting – swimming laps is fantastic for your overall health but monotonous. Riding a bike is fun. Freewheeling down a hill, swooping this way then that… it’s almost like you’re flying a few inches from the ground! Because it’s more fun, it’s easier to get on a bike than a treadmill, making it more likely that you’ll engage in some physical activity and reap the physical and mental rewards.
This is important for anyone with a mental health problem. For while physical activity can help with some symptoms of some illnesses – notably anxiety and depression – it can be more challenging to engage in exercise in the first place if you have such an illness. Knowing that cycling will lift your mood might not be enough to get you riding if the black dog is standing between you and your bike. The barriers that mental health problems put in the way of physical activity are reflected in the fact that poorer mental health is associated with poorer physical health.
Cycling has a head start over most forms of exercise, in that it’s easy to initiate and enjoyable to do. Yet it’s still worth doing whatever you can to eliminate the reasons NOT to ride. Get everything ready in advance – tyres pumped up, kit laid out – so you can hop on your bike and start riding with the minimum of effort. And don’t set yourself unrealistic cycling goals. All you need is a tick on a calendar: I rode my bike today.