In the past, discussing mental health was reserved for doctors and private settings. However, the last decade has seen more resources devoted to learning about the brain and mental health. Mental illness affects millions worldwide and is no longer a taboo topic. Science is uncovering a link between cycling and mental health, offering new approaches to treating common disorders.
The truth about mental health
There is an abundance of false information surrounding the topic of mental health, and though psychology was dismissed as not being a “real science,” “real science” has demonstrated that mental and physical health are interconnected, each influencing the other. Consequently, understanding mental health, its boundaries, and how to care for oneself can be vital for living a fulfilling, healthier life.
What is mental health?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe mental health as including “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, related to others, and make healthy choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
Mental and physical well-being are both integral to overall health, as they are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Deficiencies in one can have adverse effects on the other. For instance, depression can heighten the risk of physical health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. In contrast, regular physical activity can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as manage weight, mitigating the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, chronic conditions have been associated with a greater probability of mental illness and a more robust brain structure.
What are the most common mental health conditions and treatments?
Around 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety, depression, and related conditions. Anxiety is a reaction to a perceived threat that induces feelings of fear and dread, while depression causes long-term feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Only 37% of diagnosed people with depression get treatment. Depression is the world's leading cause of disability, with anxiety affecting one in 13 individuals. 75% of people with anxiety in developing countries don't receive care, leading to around one million suicides each year. Treatment is crucial.
Psychotherapy and medication are the two most common treatments that relieve patients, but access to either or both is often not an option for those who would benefit the most. While there may be no substitute for medication and psychotherapy, there may be an inexpensive, viable option to help cope: riding a bike. Scientific studies have concluded that riding a bike can help combat emotional and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. For some people, it can be a more effective treatment than psychotherapy.
Why mindful mental health care is important
Different types of stress affect health differently, with prolonged and intense stress having a greater impact. The unpredictable nature and lack of a time limit for stress can lead to a sense of loss of control. Understanding how the brain and body function is crucial for mindfulness and self-awareness, promoting better mental health care.
The body has a natural response system.
Mental health affects the entire body. Everyone's response to stress differs because of genetic and life experiences. These two factors are the most influential in determining how one reacts to stress. Genes can cause under and overactive stress responses, while personal experiences can trigger specific emotional reactions. Understanding what happens under stress enables us to identify the early warning signs and respond appropriately. Symptoms that suggest poor mental health include irritability, restlessness, insomnia, anger, brain fog, confusion, and fearfulness. Physical manifestations include tense muscles, facial tension resulting in jaw, neck and headache pain, intestinal issues, and symptoms such as rapid breathing, chest tightness, and a pounding pulse.
There is evidence that chronic stress may actually rewire your brain.
Prolonged stress can alter the brain's structure and function, weakening certain areas while strengthening others. Studies show chronic stress reduces activity in regions that handle higher-order thinking and strengthens those that deal with threats. Some changes are reversible, but others are not.
“Nature prescriptions” are really a thing.
Research indicates that spending time in green spaces has a profoundly positive impact on physical and mental health. Being outdoors induces a release of all kinds of chemicals in the brain, including endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller and mood booster. Some studies have shown that spending time outdoors is linked to a lower risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Others have concluded that even without exercising, just 20 minutes in nature is all it takes to see mental health benefits and the effects of exercising outdoors is even greater. Some doctors have started writing “nature prescriptions'' that become part of each patient’s medical file. The prescriptions recommend they spend time outdoors, performing some form of exercise.
Cycling and mental health
While stress is typically seen as negative, physical stress from activities like aerobic exercise can be beneficial for the body and brain. Cycling, in particular, is a low-impact exercise that can increase brain function, development, and the production of chemicals and hormones important for mental health. Because cycling is gentler on the joints, it's easier to cycle for longer periods of time than other aerobic activities like running or walking, which can result in more significant health benefits.
Cycling reduces stress by lowering cortisol levels and releasing endorphins that promote relaxation and happiness. Regular cycling reduces stress levels and improves mood, cognitive functioning, and sleep quality. Just a short bike ride can be enough to relieve stress and improve overall mental health.
Regular exercise enhances self-confidence, self-worth, and a sense of achievement. It can also aid in a better night's sleep, leading to a more positive state of mind. Once it becomes a habit, exercising can help boost self-esteem.
No matter one’s age, gender, body type, or physical abilities, bicycling is a hobby that literally anyone can enjoy. Research shows that bike-riding can help slow down age-related changes in our brain. As the brain and body age, we will start to notice slower reflexes and reaction times, memory loss, mood swings, and in some cases, the beginning signs of dementia. Cycling increases the production of proteins that help grow new brain cells and make new connections within the brain. And because riding produces endorphins, you will be left feeling mentally sharp and better able to concentrate, benefits that help prevent age-related illness and decline.
Mental health helper
Scientific investigations have found a positive relationship between aerobic exercise and mental health, particularly for depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Even small amounts of exercise can be effective in treating mild to moderate depression, and decrease the risk of major depression by 26%. Just a 15 minute daily ride can have a significant effect on mental health, making exercise a powerful tool for managing mental health issues.
- Anxiety-easer: Cycling releases stress-relieving endorphins, which can also reduce anxiety. Practicing mindfulness while cycling can help break the rumination process, reduce intrusive thoughts, and improve mental health. Many athletes use mindfulness to manage depression, anxiety, and stress. Focusing on pedal strokes or the sounds of nature can improve mindfulness while riding.
- Depression fighter: Cycling can reduce symptoms of depression by releasing mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, making it especially effective for those with mild to moderate depression. The "runner's high" feeling after exercise is due to the release of endocannabinoids, which have mood-lifting and anxiety-reducing effects. According to a recent study, biking for just 15 minutes can reduce cortisol levels in people with depression on antidepressants.
- PTSD soother: Studies show that those with PTSD who practice mindful exercise can actually help the nervous system overcome the immobilization and stress response that commonly accompanies PTSD, with mountain biking being reported as especially effective.
- ADHD: Individuals with ADHD often experience symptoms that affect their mental health, such as anxiety, depression, and low motivation. However, physical activity can boost dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels in the brain, leading to improved mood, memory, and motivation levels. These effects are similar to ADHD medication.
Social circle expander
Perhaps one of the best things about riding a bike is that it can be done solo, with a biking buddy, or a whole group of fellow cyclists. Human beings are social by nature, but when we are mentally unwell, we tend to isolate ourselves, exacerbating our condition. Not surprisingly, spending time with friends is a very effective way to alleviate effects of anxiety, stress or depression. Social circles can have a positive impact on mental health by providing emotional support, reducing isolation, boosting self-esteem, and promoting physical health. If you’ve been feeling a bit lonely lately, consider joining a weekend group ride to scratch that social itch. By joining a cycling club, participating in events, connecting with online communities, or visiting your local bike shop, you can meet other cyclists who share your love for the sport and develop lasting friendships.
Establishing a regular riding routine can be challenging, especially when there are so many obstacles that can leave us second guessing the decision to go for a ride. As difficult as it may be to stick to a riding regiment, research shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can help prevent relapsing and contribute to an overall healthier lifestyle and happier life.
Feeling exhausted or unmotivated
Feeling exhausted and exercising may seem contradictory, but studies have proven that physical exercise is a great way to boost energy levels. When feeling drained, promising yourself a quick 5-minute bike ride can be a game-changer. Starting is often the toughest part, but once you get going, you'll experience a surge of energy. You can stop after five minutes, but you'll probably be surprised at how much better you feel and want to keep going.
Adding bike rides to a busy schedule may feel overwhelming, especially for those with childcare responsibilities. But exercise should alleviate stress, not create it. Prioritize consistency, not miles or minutes. On some days, even 10 minutes can make a difference. Remember—quality over quantity. Don't stress over fitting in a full workout; make it work for you.
If you’d like to start riding but are afraid of getting injured, there’s good news: you can still enjoy the benefits of cycling with confidence. Tricycles and electric bikes offer additional stability and power for those who require either or both. When the weather has you worried, indoor cycling as an alternative will protect you from Mother Nature. If personal injury or damage or total loss of your bike is a concern, then opting for bike insurance might help alleviate some of those worries.
Feeling hopeless or bad about yourself
Riding a bike with a friend can be a great way to boost your mood and self-esteem. Cyclists are typically eager to hit the road, and even a short ride can give you a sense of accomplishment. Remember that starting is always tough, so celebrate your progress, no matter how small. As you continue to ride and challenge yourself, you'll gain more confidence and a greater sense of your own strength. If you are struggling with your mental health, or know someone who is, please reach out for help. You are not alone and there is no shame in seeking support. Remember to take care of yourself and prioritize your well-being.
Mental health is a vital part of our overall well-being. Good mental health enables us to handle life's challenges, build meaningful relationships, and make valuable contributions to our communities. Cycling is a unique and effective way to promote both physical and mental health. It can reduce stress and anxiety, boost mood and self-esteem, improve cognitive function, and even aid in the regeneration of brain cells! It also provides a sense of accomplishment, promotes social connections, and allows us to enjoy the beauty of nature. So, next time you feel overwhelmed or need a mood boost, consider going for a ride!