Cyclescheme is the UK's most popular cycle to work benefit, creating more cyclists than any other provider.

Cycling to work regularly can help alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), otherwise known as winter depression.

Few of us feel especially upbeat during the shorter, greyer days of winter. We might even joke about having Seasonal Affective Disorder, just as someone who double-checks their door is locked might say they’re ‘a bit OCD’. Let’s be clear: OCD isn’t a personality quirk but something that controls and limits your life. SAD isn’t just a downbeat mood, it’s actual depression, linked to lack of exposure to sunlight.

It’s a bigger problem today not because the world is populated by ‘snowflakes’ but because we spend less time outdoors. A couple of hundred years ago, most of us worked outside. Now few do. And in a UK winter, there aren’t many daylight hours outside of working hours.

Defining SADness

The NHS gives a long list of symptoms for SAD, as follows:

  • persistent low mood
  • loss of pleasure or interest in everyday activities
  • feeling irritable
  • feelings of despair, guilt, and worthlessness
  • low self-esteem
  • tearfulness
  • feeling stressed or anxious
  • reduced sex drive
  • becoming less sociable
  • being less active than normal
  • feeling lethargic and sleepy
  • sleeping longer than normal
  • struggling to concentrate
  • craving carbohydrate-heavy foods

Some of those symptoms might ring a bell with you, but before assuming that you suffer from SAD, a couple of caveats. Firstly, like most mental health issues, there isn’t an absolute dividing line between well and unwell. It’s not something you simply have or have don’t have. It’s a matter of degree, and it’s a problem when it’s a problem. If your symptoms are making everyday activities difficult, if you’re struggling to cope, it’s time to visit your GP. 

Secondly, it’s not easy to distinguish between SAD and other kinds of depression. The symptoms are much the same. What’s different is that they follow a seasonal pattern.

Getting happier

Cycling can help with SAD, as it can with other forms of depression. It is not a cure-all. Your GP may prescribe antidepressants or cognitive behavioural therapy. You may be recommended light therapy, which involves exposure to high levels of artificial light using a light box. You may be advised to ensure you have a healthy diet, and to avoid putting yourself in stressful situations. Cycling is just one ingredient in the coping-with-SAD recipe.

Cycling can also help if you’re at the functional end of the ‘winter depression’ spectrum and don’t need medication or other forms of intervention. If you merely feel a bit down, cycling will make you feel less down for the same reasons it helps with more serious symptoms.

How cycling helps

It’s exercise, and exercise in general is good for your mental health, particularly mild to moderate depression. It lifts your mood due to the chemical changes in your brain that it causes – the so-called ‘runner’s high’.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends 45-60 minutes of exercise three times a week for people suffering from depression, which as we’ve noted is just what SAD is. A two-way cycle commute five times a week should add up to or exceed this figure.

Cycling to work is a better way to get the recommended exercise than, say, going to the gym because it integrates so easily into your daily routine. You don’t have to allocate time, pack your gym kit, and make a special journey. You just go to work and back, which is something you’d have to do anyway. So you do it automatically. Backsliding is harder.

Cycling is especially good for dealing with the symptoms of SAD for the simple reason that it gets you outside. It maximises your exposure to natural light, and natural light is what you need. The NHS notes that ‘even a brief lunchtime walk can be beneficial’. Likewise your morning ride to work.

It doesn’t have to be a beautiful blue-sky day. Light levels are much higher outdoors even on an overcast day. According to EN 12464 (Light and lighting, Lighting of workplaces, Indoor work places), the recommended light level for normal office work is 500 lux. For easy office work it’s 250 lux, while for warehouse work and the like it’s 150 lux. And these are only the levels the standard says you should have. Some environments may be dimmer. In the past it was common to have only 100-300 lux for normal office activities. By contrast, an overcast day is around 1,000 lux, while full daylight – that beautiful blue-sky day – is around 10,000 lux.

Exposure to natural daylight thus has a big difference in terms of the light levels you experience. Even sitting closer to windows when you’re indoors can help.

Keep on riding

While riding to work is helpful in dealing with the symptoms of SAD, those same symptoms might contrive to keep you off your bike in the first place. If you’re feeling lethargic, downbeat, and aren’t enjoying the things you usually enjoy – like cycling – the prospect of getting on your bike may not be appealing. So you need to remove the hurdles that might stop you getting out of the door, then make the ride itself as pleasurable as possible.

Things you can do to address any excuses not to ride to work include:

  • getting everything ready the night before
  • ensuring that you and your bike are winterproof
  • arranging to ride all or part way with a colleague

Things you can do to make your ride more pleasurable include:

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