There’s a drug-like quality to cycling. For many, myself included, that first spin of the wheels on a long stretch of road can be the gateway to a lifetime addiction. Take my word for it – I upped my cycling game at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and haven’t been able to stop since.
We all know the physical rewards you can reap from regular riding – your increased muscle tone and flexibility, your enhanced cardiovasuclar fitness, your stronger bones, and so on.
But what about the cycling mental health benefits? What is it about a bike that once so many people turn to them, they soon fall in love with them?
Why Is Cycling Good For You Mentally?
Why do people love cycling so much for its psychological benefits? Here’s four key reasons why…
Fitter, Happier, More Productive…
From my own personal experience, if I’ve had a stressful day or worries are stacking up in my mind, a good bike ride, particularly along a scenic, quiet route, always does my head the world of good.
But this isn’t just a feeling I get – there’s actually a great deal of science behind this, too. A study in 2015 concluded that aerobic exercise (e.g. cycling, running, swimming) increases your blood levels of anandamide, which is a natural cannabinoid.
Cannabinoids affect the endocannabinoid system – the same part of the brain that marijuana alters – which might go some way to explaining why so many people feel a rush of euphoria during and after a good cycle.
And of course, as soon as you start pedalling, your brain increases the levels or serotonin, a natural mood stabiliser often referred to as a ‘happy hormone’.
We also experience a surge in dopamine, another hormone which makes us feel more positive, as well as keeping us focusing and increasing reaction times of our muscles.
Another study monitored levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in depressed participants before and after pedalling a stationary bike. After 15 minutes, cortisol levels had fallen and subjective reports of depressive symptoms improved.
Meanwhile, another study with 26 years’ worth of research behind it also found that even just 20 to 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise can long-term depression.
It Can Treat Illnesses
Cycling has also been known to be an excellent antidote to disabilities like ADHD and Parkinson’s; some even call it a ‘natural Ritalin’ in that regard.
A study investigating the link with aerobic exercise and ADHD, for instance, found that after exercising, the brains of children with the disability exhibit similar neural functions to those of children without it.
Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycle Components, has also backed this theory up in the past, saying: “I have ADHD, and so do a lot of people who ride for hours and hours. As riders, we know it has this effect on the brain.”
As for Parkinson’s, numerous case studies have found that cycling is significantly effective is slow the effects of the disease down. This, according to researcher Jay Alberts, may happen because of the way aerobic exercise activates the same parts of the brain that medication does, and increases the brain’s connectivity, which consequently limits the effects of Parkinson’s.
The Power of Achievement
Like anything in life, exercise-related or otherwise, cycling can pose its own physical and psychological hurdles. It is paramount that you tackle some of these from a mental perspective – even if you fail first time around, at least you’ve set yourself a target; a high bar.
To draw on my own experiences for a moment, when I first started regular cycling again, I was pretty out of shape and out of practice. Even the slightest incline and I felt my head prodding me to get off and walk my bike up the hill. Over time, steeper terrain like this has become, well, if not walk in the park, a cycle in the park, perhaps.
Set yourself challenges that seem ambitious but are also not beyond the realms of impossibility. I cycle 26km to my grandparents’ house each way instead of getting the train, or similar distances to see some of my friends – not only because it saves me money (and lowers the risk of coronavirus) by not using public transport, but it gives me a great sense of achievement that I can do things I probably couldn’t, say, six months ago.
I won’t bog you down with cheesy, trite motivational slogans, other than to say there’s no shame in trying and failing; the real crime would be not trying at all.
Going Green Means a Healthier Mind
Being in a physically fitter state will do wonders for your mental wellbeing too, of course, but there’s also a lot to be said for the positive impact of getting outdoors in this regard.
Do you, like me, just loathe those days when you’re camped inside your own house without a minute spent breathing in sweet fresh air? Well, if so, no wonder – studies have proven that outdoor exercise is linked with improvements in energy levels and positivity, and diminishes feelings of anger or depression.
So, while nobody would deny that going to the gym is a great way to boost your body and mind, nothing compares to the great outdoors, as another study showed. Participants pedalled a stationary bike while watching a five-minute video of a green cycling path which was came into three forms: unedited (i.e. green), shaded grey, and shaded red.
After watching the unedited version, they reported a less negative mood and a greater sense of ease, despite their heart rate and breathing being the same across all three scenarios.