Healthy body, healthy mind: Cycling and its benefits to Mental Health
Everyone knows that being active has great benefits to our physical health. It’s something you can measure (check out our blog on fitness levels for more information) as there are plenty of ways you can see physical improvements. But did you know that physical activity, and in particular cycling, is hugely beneficial for your mental health?
Dr Kunle Babawale, who is part of Cycle Together, tells us, “One of the biggest things that I’ve seen in scientific research and I love sharing is the positive impact cycling (and other forms of physical activity) can have on reducing anxiety and improving mental health. There are different chemicals in our body which we produce when we have high anxiety levels. The studies show that cycling has a positive impact by reducing the levels of these stress chemicals in our body”.
Research by mental health charity Mind shows that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year and one in six will experience depression during their lifetime. With so many studies pointing towards cycling and exercise having great benefits to our mental wellbeing, it’s no coincidence that during mental health awareness weeks there are campaigns encouraging people to get outdoors and be active.
With the number of cyclists on our roads in England reaching an all time high of around 7.5 million people in 2021 (around 13% of the population), according to data on Statista, cycling participation has surpassed that of running (approximately 7 million according to Statista). So what are the main mental health benefits of cycling?
- Reduces stress – cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. Cortisol levels increase during stressful situations, as it prepares your body for a ‘fight or flight’ response. Our lifestyles these days are often very demanding which can cause our cortisol levels to rise and remain elevated for extended periods of time. We don’t need to tell you that this isn’t good for you, you’ve no doubt experienced some of the effects this can have on our bodies – depression, anxiety, insomnia to name but a few. Cycling actually lowers your body’s levels of cortisol and reduces stress levels.
- Reduces anxiety – reducing stress can in turn reduce symptoms of anxiety. Even better than that, cycling releases endorphins, also known as happy hormones. These can have the same effect as some anti-anxiety medications and will help you relax and boost your mood.
- Ease the symptoms of depression as well as prevent it – reducing cortisol and the release of endorphins whilst cycling will not only boost your mood and increase your energy levels, but also ease the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Cycling regularly can also reduce your risk of becoming depressed.
- Keeps you present – there’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days and in our busy everyday lives filled with distractions it can be hard to stay in the moment. When you’re out cycling and it’s just you, your bike and the beautiful countryside, it’s much easier to be present and enjoy the moment. You can almost ride away from the day to day stresses and switch off those negative thoughts. All you need to focus on is turning the pedals.
- Increases self-esteem – the endorphins produced while cycling can make you feel more positive about yourself and there are other ways the bike can help improve your self-esteem. Seeing improvements in your fitness through cycling regularly can be hugely motivating and satisfying, which can have a positive effect on how we see ourselves.
- Keeps your mind young – doing 30 minutes of exercise regularly can boost your memory and keep your mind sharp. If you continue to do this as you get older, this may help protect against memory loss and degenerative neurological disorders such as dementia that can occur as our brains start to slow down. Because cycling is low impact, most people are able to continue to ride well into their twilight years.
On top of all this, the social side of cycling in clubs and groups can also make you feel good. A study published in the Lancet in the US in 2019, the first and largest study of its kind, confirms that riding a bike came a close second to playing team sports as the activity most beneficial for emotional wellness. Joining a cycling club can actually help you get some of the same benefits that come from playing team sports, so we’d argue that cycling should top the list!
Cycling with a club also gets you outside regularly and helps you form good habits, another great way to help improve your self-esteem. Studies have shown that exercising outdoors is better for your mental health than exercising indoors. Fresh air when you’re out on a bike ride leaves you feeling energised, positive and ready to take on whatever life throws at you.
With so many positive benefits to cycling, are you convinced to give it a try? If you’re new to cycling and don’t yet have a bike, check out our blog for top tips on buying your first road bike.