The physical health benefits of cycling are pretty well understood –better cardiovascular health, lower weight and a pair of legs like pistons. However, what is often overlooked is the benefit to your mental health.
As much as society appears to want to try, you cannot separate your physical and mental health. We’re a complete system where poor physical or mental health will inevitably affect the other. Poor mental health will take its toll on your physical health, just as poor physical health will start to eat away at your self-confidence, your ability to concentrate and potentially lead to any number of destructive habits, vices and possibly onwards to depression.
For many of us, anxiety and depression are a part of life. Feelings of emptiness or impending doom; of helplessness and of low self-worth are regular visitors to our psyche. You can sometimes point to a cause of the distress you are currently feeling, but often it’ll arrive out of the blue at a time when things should be just fine. If there is something feeding this particular monster, it may not be what you think it is, just something far easier to blame.
It’s a regular visitor to us, too. Medication and counselling can help, but the medication isn’t infallible and whilst the counselling can teach you to manage and rationalise the wide ranging symptoms and perhaps the reasons why they are there in the first place, it’s unlikely to stop the sudden onset of an episode. However, one thing that can be used in conjunction with other forms of help is our trusty bicycle.
The thing about riding a bike is…
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkiller. Exercise in any form triggers the production of endorphins and helps to calm the physical and mental pain we feel. Better yet, riding a bike is often an all-consuming experience, giving us little opportunity to think about anything else. The brain also releases Dopamine, the so-called “reward” chemical, which controls the pleasure centres in the brain and makes cycling ever so slightly addictive in the same way that drink and junk food can be. Actually, the response is the same whether you drink alcohol or cycle, but whereas alcohol is a poison, cycling will improve your health.
Riding helps to clear our minds, calm our nerves and it also gives us the free time we need to attempt to make sense of everything that is flying around in our heads. It isn’t fool proof and may only benefit us for the time we are riding (perhaps for a couple of hours after), but any downtime or respite on a dark day can make all the difference.
However, there is no getting around the fact that just getting on a bike when our mental health takes a turn for the worse, can feel like an insurmountable challenge.
Anxiety and Cortisol
The feelings of anxiety we get are rooted in the long distant past when humans lived on the plains or in caves and lived with the very real threat of being eaten by a large carnivore. Way back then the threat of becoming a large cat’s dinner triggered the production of cortisol from the Adrenal glands, preparing the body for a “fight or flight” response.
Cortisol triggers the production of glucose (gluconeogenesis), increasing glycogen levels and inhibiting insulin activity, which increases blood glucose levels. It also increases protein and fat breakdown to release even more fuel into the bloodstream.
It also inhibits your immune system; bone formation and the production of sex hormones (gonadotropins) leading to a drop in libido and fertility. There are few upsides to cortisol –mostly relating to its ability to manage inflammation.
Exercise, believe it or not actually increases cortisol production. However, the more you do the better your body will be at dealing with the cortisol it produces.
The more training you do, the better your body will become at dealing with physical stresses and decrease the need to release cortisol. This effect is not limited to exercise; people who are regularly active show a decreased cortisol response to an emotional crisis when compared to sedentary controls.
Whilst the threat of being eaten has by and large gone away from polite society, the fight or flight response is just as much a part of our biology as it was back then. However, the threats have changed. We may no longer fear the sabre-tooth tiger, but we do fear uncertainty; unemployment; debt; and relationship troubles –threats that are probably not going to be short-lived.
This means that it is more important than ever to find a way to manage an almost chronic sensation of being under attack.
Depression and vicious cycles
Whilst they do say that anxiety and depression are related, they probably couldn’t feel more different. An analogy I quite like to use is one of a shark attack. If you’ve ever seen Jaws, imagine, if you will, that you are that woman at the beginning who goes for a swim at night.
She feels something brush against her leg and understandably gets freaked out. That would be anxiety, but over a much shorter period than many of us experience. Depression on the other hand is more like how you would imagine feeling if you were up to your waist in the shark’s mouth and had pretty much stopped kicking.
Depression is unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It isn’t sadness, it isn’t a feeling that is easy to describe. You feel nothing; you feel as though the world around you is running in slow motion; you can’t concentrate; nothing makes sense. It’s the end of a cycle that has been spinning downward for longer than you may realise.
Not all cycles are good. Vicious cycles form when our thoughts or our actions lead to unwelcomed consequences, lead to bad habits or reinforce beliefs we hold about ourselves.
Let’s take junk food as an example. We eat it because it briefly makes us feel good, but we find ourselves reaching for the doughnuts whenever we have a bad day, or feel bad about ourselves. Soon, we start gaining weight around the middle, making us feel worse about ourselves. We look at ourselves in the mirror, notice that some of the bones or muscles we used to see in our reflection have disappeared, so we reach for the doughnuts again.
Our brains are very good at developing habits. Like a well-worn trail, the pathways that form to make an action more efficient works just as well for learning to play an instrument as it does for developing unhealthy eating or drinking habits. Just add motivation and you’re on your way.
The same can be said for negative thoughts. In most situations there may be two ways you can go. You can see it as a crisis; that the world is out to get you, or you can see it as an opportunity. If you keep taking the crisis approach, before long it becomes second nature.
One of the great things about riding to work is that it gives you some time to digest everything that is going on in your head before work and then again on the ride home after. Above all, getting to work is something we have to do. Unlike a long ride on the weekend that can be cancelled when our feelings get the better of us, the ride to work needs to be done, so you have no choice but to have some alone time with the bike.
It’ll also set you up nicely for the day ahead and, let’s not forget, you are getting the physical benefits too. Not only are you going to get fitter and stronger, you will gradually increase your tolerance to the cortisol you produce when you are feeling anxious.
As an additional benefit, if your self esteem is low because of the way you see yourself, you may be pleasantly surprised when you look in the mirror a few months down the line. We have an articles on weight loss and fitness that you may want to take a look at, too.
We’ve been using the bike to keep the mind in check for a while now. Along the way we’ve come to a few realisations that may be of use to you.
- Some of us find certain places to be of comfort. Sometimes it’s a forest or riverbank, just somewhere quiet so we can hear ourselves think; perhaps it is somewhere you grew up. If you can, why not find a route home that’ll take you through that place, where you can stop and unwind for a bit.
- Breathe. Stop, close your eyes, breathe in deeply through your nose, out through your mouth. Mr Miagi was onto something there…
- Diet is just as much a part of your mental health as your physical health –please don’t neglect it. Try to eat a balanced diet and avoid things like caffeine and alcohol if you are not in the right frame of mind. An unhappy or angry drunk is nobody’s friend and there are few things worse than caffeine when your heart is already trying to bounce out of your chest.
- A vigorous ride on the way home is excellent for clearing the cobwebs away and will help to tire you out ready for bed.
- With that said, on the bad days a ride may seem too much. Instead, focus on the small things that add up –showering, going for a walk around the block, if you can. There will be other days, better days.
- Find a route that is a bit challenging, or take on a few big hills. Here in Cardiff we have some great climbs nearby. Some that are epic, some that are a fun challenge. The sense of accomplishment will hopefully provide a bit of a boost.
- If you can, find someone to ride with. Not only does social contact have a positive effect on many of us, your riding buddy may become the friend and sounding board you never expected to have.
- Don’t suffer alone. Please talk to someone, whether that is a close friend, your GP, a counselor (which can often be arranged by your GP) or a relative about how you feel. It helps to talk, it really, really does. We can’t always work out what is going on if we internalise it.
- Give yourself a break from social media. Algorithms pipe all of the negativity and bitterness to the top, warping our perspective on the world. Instagram in particular forces us to see often imagined lives that probably look better than our own. It isn’t helpful, it isn’t real, it really doesn’t matter.
- However you feel right now, please remember that life can turn on a sixpence. It only takes one person to walk into your life or one event to change everything. It could be someone you meet out cycling; it could be a new job or hobby.
- No coping strategy in the world, including cycling will ever trump fixing the problem once and for all. If there is a part of your life that you are not happy with that can be changed, change it. Jobs, relationships or the places you live can all have a profound effect on our mental wellbeing. All can be changed or fixed with time.
Your mind is not something that can be taken lightly. It stands between you and everything, including the people you meet and the experiences you have.
If you find yourself, like I did, swinging wildly between elation and rage; losing weight without trying to; losing pride in your appearance or your home; having trouble concentrating on anything or losing interest in the things you love, please get help. Medication certainly can help in the short term, but don’t be surprised if you go through a number of different types or strengths before you find the right one. It also needs to be used with other treatments, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy.
One of the things that took me by surprise is the physical symptoms. The aches, the feelings of exhaustion, of feeling as though everything was running in slow motion; and the weight loss when combined with the constant rumination and distracting thoughts.
Your first port of call should be your GP, who can often arrange for you to see a counsellor and/or prescribe something to help keep you on the level in the short-term. When you feel as though you have control again –and you will, your bicycle is an almost perfect way to try to keep your head clear and your body strong.