The mental health benefits of cycling

A survey by Cycleplan, which aimed to understand the health benefits people experienced after taking up cycling, discovered that three-quarters of respondents noticed an improvement in their mental health…

Everyone has their own reason for starting cycling. Whether it’s to improve fitness, build muscle or lose weight, many people start with a certain goal in mind. However, although the physical benefits are widely documented, what is often forgotten is how much it can benefit our mental health too.

A survey by Cycleplan, which examined the health benefits people experienced after taking up cycling, found 75% of cyclists noticed an improvement in their mental health since getting on the saddle, with 8% even saying it helped with their depression or anxiety. ‘Healthy body, healthy mind’ really does stand true, and cycling can play a crucial role in this. To demonstrate, here are the top mental health benefits of cycling – it’s amazing what two wheels can do!

Keeps stress at bay
Some life stresses are worse than others. Some can be solved with a hot bath and a nice cup of tea, but others need more attention. But how powerful is pedalling in helping us keep life’s pressures at bay? Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone – it prepares your body for a ‘fight or flight’ response during stressful situations. Having elevated levels of cortisol for an extended period of time due to a demanding, modern lifestyle can increase your chances of obesity, insomnia, heart disease, digestive issues and depression.

Unfortunately, work is often a cause of stress and, for many people, taking to the road on two wheels does a world of good for these tough circumstances. Even Lizzie Deignan, Olympic Road Race silver medallist, who cycles for a living, swears by cycling as a form of therapy. “Mental well-being is the most important cycling benefit for me. I rely on cycling and exercise to relieve any anxiety or stress that I may have built up,” she says.

Reduces anxiety
As cycling decreases our levels of stress, it also decreases our chances of suffering from symptoms linked to anxiety. Better still, cycling has some of the same effects as some anti-anxiety medications. As soon as you get on the saddle and start your ride, endorphins – which are your body’s natural painkiller – are released in your brain. Although they’re primarily released to prevent exercise from causing our bodies (too much) pain, they also play a crucial role in relaxing our mind and boosting our mood.

Fights against depression
A recent review of 26 years of scientific research by the University of Toronto has confirmed what many experts have long theorised. Exercise not only treats depression – it can also prevent it. In fact, researchers have estimated an inactive adult who exercises three times a week can reduce their chance of suffering from depression by 19%.

While this study seemed to confirm that exercise such as cycling can improve and even prevent depression, it’s not entirely clear how exactly it does so. Many researchers have hypothesised that the link could be more indirect than you’d expect – like providing a distraction from stressful circumstances or encouraging healthier habits such as a better diet or a better sleeping schedule.

Helps you practice mindfulness
Just 11 years after the first modern bicycle was rolled out 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 a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

What he was referring to is what we now know as mindfulness: being completely engaged with what you’re doing and where you are at a particular moment in time. Cycling epitomises this – you don’t have to think about anything apart from keeping the pedals turning. This means your brain can have a welcome break from brooding thoughts that, unfortunately, come with modern life.

Boosts your self-esteem
We already know that having good self-esteem makes us feel good about ourselves, and cycling is a great way to boost self-esteem. The success of sticking to a cycling training programme and seeing your fitness and performance increase allows you to enjoy a sense of achievement. Not only that, but in a society that’s seemingly obsessed with body image, how we look has a direct influence on our self-esteem. As we cycle and our fitness and appearance improve, it has a strong positive effect on how we see ourselves.

Prevents cognitive decline
It’s an unfortunate fact that as we get older, our brains become a little, shall we say – slower. We can lose a lot of important brain functions as ageing and degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, attack brain cells, which can cause us to lose a lot of important brain functions.

An important brain function that’s 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. However, it’s not all bad news – it was recently discovered that aerobic exercise such as cycling counteracts our declining hippocampal function as we age and even in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Improves your social life
Just when you thought all of the mental health benefits of cycling had been unveiled, it turns out it can improve your social life as well. Whether you’re part of a cycling club or have a group of friends who cycle, coming together with people who have the same level of passion for cycling 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 two diabetes!

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