People start cycling for a number of reasons; to improve cardiovascular health, build muscle and, of course, to get the athletic body of their dreams. The health benefits don’t just stop at keeping our body’s well-oiled machines though.
Many of us don’t give much thought to our mental health because the signs and symptoms can often be overlooked. ‘Healthy body, healthy mind’ really does stand true, and cycling can play a crucial role in this. To demonstrate, we’ve cumulated our pick of the top 9 mental health benefits of cycling – it’s amazing what two wheels can do!
Discover more: What Are The Health Benefits Of Cycling? [Interactive]
There are very few stressful situations that cannot be made a whole lot better with a good bike ride. Many put this down to simply being distracted away from the stresses of everyday life and, while this may be true, there’s a lot more science behind it than you might think.
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. It alters the way your body functions during a fight-or-flight situation which was very handy for our distant ancestors once-upon-a-time. However, having elevated levels of cortisol as a result of a stressful modern-day lifestyle can increase your risk of developing depression, obesity, insomnia, heart disease and digestive problems.
Exercising has been shown to decrease the level of cortisol in your bloodstream, leading to a reduction of the symptoms of stress. Although more research is needed, findings have pointed towards aerobic exercise such as cycling as having the greatest effect on reducing cortisol levels.
Since cycling reduces levels of cortisol and therefore stress, this decreases the chance of suffering from symptoms linked to anxiety. However, the primary reason that cycling works as an effective anxiety management solution is that exercise has some of the same effects as some anti-anxiety medications.
Cycling releases endorphins in your brain, which are your body’s natural painkiller. Technically, they’re released to prevent exercise from causing us pain, but they also play a crucial role in boosting our mood and relaxing our mind.
Fights against depression
A recent review of 26 years of scientific research by the University of Toronto has confirmed what many have long suspected: exercise not only treats but prevents depression. In fact, researchers have estimated that an inactive adult who begins to exercise three times a week can cut their chances of depression by 19%.
While the evidence seems to confirm that exercise such as cycling can improve and even prevent depression, the way in which it does so is somewhat foggier. As established earlier, cycling reduces stress and anxiety – both of which go hand-in-hand in depression. Many researchers have also hypothesised that the link could be more indirect – like providing a distraction from stressful circumstances or encouraging healthier habits.
A good practice of mindfulness
Just eleven years after the first modern bicycle was rolled out onto the road in 1885, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in an article for Scientific American:
‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.’
What he was referring to is what we now know as mindfulness: being completely present, entirely engaged with what you’re currently doing and where you are at that moment in time. Cycling is great for promoting this – you don’t have to think about anything apart from keeping the pedals turning, taking in the scenery and navigating the roads to name just a few. Ultimately, this means your brain can have a welcome break from brooding thoughts that, unfortunately, come with modern life.
Read More: Cycling and Sleep: What’s the Link?
It’s no secret that having high self-esteem contributes to a healthy mind, and cycling is a great way to give your self-esteem a boost. The success of sticking to a cycling training program or routine allows you to enjoy a sense of achievement.
Not only that but in a society that’s obsessed with body image, how we look has a direct influence on our self-esteem. As you cycle and your fitness and appearance improve as a result of weight loss and muscle tone, it has a strong positive effect on our self-esteem.
Enjoying the great outdoors
Unless you’re cycling in a velodrome, cycling is predominantly an outdoor sport. Exposure to nature has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, independently from exercise, and it has been found that combining the two is a winning combo for mental well-being. Plus, cycling out in the sun (with sun cream on of course) means you’ll be getting a healthy dose of Vitamin D which can lessen the likelihood of depressive symptoms.
Most people end a long bike ride with a coffee or an exhilarating shower, but maybe you should be sitting down to write the next best-seller or painting a masterpiece. Creative people have long been known to exercise to overcome a block, but there wasn’t any evidence that this worked or whether it was just placebo effect.
It would be easy to assume that, somehow, because cycling improves mood, so is creativity. However, a UK study found aerobic exercises such as cycling enhances creativity independently of mood – better break out the easel!
Prevents cognitive decline
It’s an unfortunate fact that as we get older, our brains become a little slower. As ageing and degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, attack brain cells we can lose a lot of important brain functions.
An important function that is often at risk is long-term memory. The system of the brain responsible for this is the hippocampus, which seems to play a major role in things like remembering past experiences, facts and events. It’s not all doom and gloom though – it was recently discovered that exercise counteracts our declining hippocampal function as we age and even in Alzheimer’s disease.
A better social life
Just when we thought all of the mental health benefits of cycling had been unveiled, it turns out it can improve your social life too. Whether you’re part of a cycling club or have many friends who cycle, coming together with people who have the same passion for cycling you do is hard to beat.
The benefits to this are so much more than just filling up your calendar for the weekend. Regular socialising with like-minded people has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, increase memory and recall, and even reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes! What better excuse do you need for a good old cycle and catch-up?
For the mental health benefits of cycling alone, the exercise seems like a no-brainer (pardon the pun). Knowing exercise does you good is one thing, actually getting around to it is another. However, that’s the beauty of cycling, often our morning ride is the best bit of the day – it’s getting off the bike and addressing the day’s to-do that requires the willpower!
If you are planning on hitting the roads for a health boost, be sure to check out cycling insurance.