How to maximise the mental health benefits of cycling

This mental health awareness week, try going for a bike ride

Mental health
(Image credit: Future/Adam Becket)

Happy mental health awareness week, I am very aware of my mental health.

I make this frankly terrible dad joke every year in this week (May 9 to May 15 2022, in the UK), where we are told to think about ourselves and the mental health of our peers. A perfect time to think about doing something that might help, like cycling.

It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to be particularly arduous, it doesn't even have to be outside; a short indoor pedal can unleash the benefits of cycling. It could be on your own, with a friend, or with a cycling club. Just stretch your legs and try and get out of your own head for a bit.

Since the beginning of the pandemic I have certainly been all too aware of how much cycling (and running, I will admit) can help my mind, can help ease my anxiety and depression. Just an hour or so of exercise can change the whole shape of a day, trust me.

I'm on antidepressants, too, yet sometimes it's just a quick spin of the pedals that really helps.

To tie in with mental health awareness week, Cycling Weekly spoke to chartered sport and exercise psychologist Josephine Perry to find out how and why riding can help with your head.

Josie perry
Josie Perry

Josie Perry is a Chartered Psychologist, with an MSc in Communications, a MSc in Psychology and a MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology. She also has a PhD in Political Communications. Perry is a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and a member of the Association of Applied Sports Psychologists (AASP). She is registered with the Health Care Professions Council. She runs Performance in Mind, a performance psychology consultancy committed to helping athletes get the most from themselves.

 

The dopamine rush of exercise

preparing for a 100 mile ride

(Image credit: Future)

It should be clear to all who exercise that there is a positive rush of energy to be gained just from doing a bit of it. The fabled 'runner's high' really exists, and is not far away for anyone; it could just be a ten minute cycle that lifts your mood.

"We know that exercise can be as effective as things like antidepressants, for helping deal with depressive symptoms," Perry says. "So that's clearly one of the biggest things, for me, for dealing with a mental health issue as you have it. One of the nice things about something like cycling is you get the dopamine rush when you finish. But you also get to feel like you've achieved something."

I know that getting out on the bike, breathing some fresh air, seeing some countryside, can help change my whole mindset. Obviously, a bike ride is not a replacement for therapy or antidepressants/SSRIs, but it can really help. Its implementation is controversial and might be ham-fisted, but the idea of GPs prescribing exercise is not as ridiculous as it sounds.

Yes, a 'stupid little walk for my mental health' has become a cliché, but the lockdowns of the last couple of years have proved how important some time outside is. Obviously, for some this might prove hard, so don't forget how helpful some time on a turbo trainer might help too.

"It can be very hard when you have things like depression or anxiety, where it feels like you're stuck quite still, and you're not moving on," Perry explains. "You might be looking around other people and feeling like you're not doing what you should be doing. Something like cycling is really good, because you can physically see you've transported yourself from one place to another. So you feel that achievement."

It is one of the many things that I love about living in south Bristol; the fact within 10 minutes I can be in the countryside proper, really get out of my mind. If you do live within touching distance of this, just a short time out of the city might be the difference between feeling stuck and giving your head a bit of a refresh.

Connecting with others

cycling club

(Image credit: Andy Jones 2014)

Cycling offers a chance to connect with others on multiple levels. Even if you are not the most sociable person, having a sense of belonging to a tribe. Perhaps a nod or a chat while on a bike ride is all you need to boost your mental health.

Obviously, there are also things like cycling clubs and social rides which can offer a lot more in terms of a meaningful connection. Riding alongside someone new or old and chatting about what's going on in your head can sometimes feel a lot easier than intense one-to-one time on a phone call or across a table.

"It's a good way to connect with other people," Perry says. "The theme of mental health awareness week [this year is] loneliness. I had a book come out last year called the 10 Pillars of Success (opens in new tab). It's looking at the 10 characteristics in life that we need if we're going to be really successful. The first chapter was belonging, and it was first for a reason."

I find that both running and cycling clubs are a great opportunity to meet new people, which can often prove hard as an adult. This is especially true during the pandemic, which has increased isolation, but on a more positive note, a lot more people have got into sport since Covid kicked off. This means clubs are often bursting at the seams with people to meet.

I moved to a new city as a 25-year-old in 2020, which was not the ideal time to meet people and make new friends, but cycling has been a central part of the way I've finally felt more at home.

"If we don't feel like we belong, we have that sense of loneliness, of being on the outside, of not being wanted, of not attaching to others," Perry says. "Cycling can be a really, really lovely way to belong."

More than that, bike riding can be a great identity, so it can just be a good thing to be a part of. Social media platforms like Strava can allow people to see what others are up to and check in.

Perry explains: "Even though I have many issues with Strava, the fact that you're on there, and you're seeing other people and you might not have ridden with them, but you've ridden the same roads, and you're connecting with people. You can see people enjoying the same things that you enjoy, building that sense of belonging."

You can achieve and enjoy something through cycling

sportive

(Image credit: Future)

When in a bit of a depression abyss, or an anxiety spiral, it can be very hard to feel like you've achieved anything. A simple bike ride is a fantastic way to tick something off for the day, even if you have castigated yourself for sitting inside most of the day, or not budging from bed.

Perry uses something called the ACE list when chatting to people with depression, which something like cycling can be worked into.

Here is her explanation of the system:

"A stands for achievements. So we'll put 10 things on there, that on a bad day, we feel like an achievement, and that could be getting outside or having a shower. Sometimes it will be like 20 minutes on the turbo trainer or going for a short ride outside to the shop. They feel like small things, but they still help us move further forward than we would without those little goals. 

"The C stands for communication. We try to pick people in that person's life that they will try to connect with one person each day while they're going through a depressive episode. It doesn't have to be a phone call or anything scary. It's literally their short WhatsApp message or commenting on somebody's posts but a way of reaching out and touching other people in the world. 

"Then the E is enjoyment. So if you get enjoyment out of something, make sure you do a little bit of that every day. Most of us know that we usually feel better after a ride. Not always, but most of the time we do, and we know this is an easy way to get some of that reward feeling. Feel like we've achieved something, and actually spend the time to go and do something else. And then we'll check back into kind of feeling more of ourselves."

Make sure it's part of your life, and not all your life, though

tired cyclist sitting on stairs

(Image credit: Future)

I really notice when I spend a period of time away from cycling or running. Not just in terms of fitness, which might be more immediately obvious - that paunch coming back - but in terms of my mental health.

Recently, thanks to some travel for Cycling Weekly, catching Covid, and a running injury, I didn't exercise at my normal rate for a few weeks, which really impacted my mood and how I felt about myself.

This proves how important cycling and running are for my mind, but Perry warns that it shouldn't become too important, as exercise addiction is very real. Plus, anyone could find themselves stuck on the sofa for any number of reasons, so you really shouldn't make it everything in your life.

"Cycling is fabulous for your mental health," Perry tells me. "However, you can take it too seriously. When it becomes a core part of your identity, there are risks: things like overtraining, exercise addiction, impact on other areas of your life. 

"[As long as you maintain perspective, cycling] should be a brilliant addition to your life. If it becomes everything, even if you're professional, there are some mental health risks to it."

In the world of cycling especially, where weight is often seen as important, exercise addiction can often be linked to disordered eating, and the idea of control. This can be dangerous when thinking about mental health.

"A lot of exercise addiction comes because people are trying to purge calories," Perry explains. "Often we find disordered eating in someone's background, I will often find that with elite level cyclists, that food is very much kind of a control mechanism. 

"If they can't control the food, they'll control how much exercise they do. If you've got a coach it's about having really good communication, and listening to their advice that they can notice when you're doing too much. We certainly get people that exercise way beyond anything that's ever going to be helpful to performance."

The important thing is to watch out for this sign, and make sure that exercise is part of a balanced mental health regime, just in the same way that a balanced diet is better than simply eating salad all the time. 

"The big thing to look out