Riding Bikes For Mental Health
We all know the physical health benefits of riding a bike. It improves cardiovascular fitness, reduces body fat, builds strength, and improves circulation. It also reduces the risk of developing diabetes and cancer. In fact, David Speigelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge in England has an even stronger argument for why biking is good for you – it can extend your life: for every hour you spend riding your bike, you add an hour to your life expectancy, even accounting for the risks involved.
UK Charity, Sustrans, found that adults who bicycle regularly have fitness levels of someone up to 10 years younger. Moderate pedaling burns up to 500 calories per hour, which is more than walking or swimming, while a 20-minute bike ride to work could use the same amount of calories as a cappuccino, a bar of chocolate or a small glass of wine.
It’s also a practically cost-free way to get around, once you own a bike and know the basics of maintenance. It’s silent. It’s clean. It’s environmentally healthy.
But what about our mental health? While some ride to get fit, there are just as many people that ride bikes simply because it makes them happy. And happiness is not trivial - how you feel about yourself, your life, and the world around you is just as important, or for some even more so, than the physical health benefits of cycling. According to the British Mental Health Foundation, physical activity can be as effective as medication and counselling in overcoming and even preventing anxiety and depression.
Mental health is a broad subject which covers a whole lot more than simply how you feel inside. It affects your mood and daily life, and it affects the way you interact with others and the world you live in. There are a number of ways in which the health benefits of cycling have been shown to extend both physical and mental health.
“Lifestyle” Exercise Improves Subjective Mood
Numerous studies suggest that even an hour of exercise daily can improve a person’s subjective mood and well-being. This is often thought of as being “competitive” exercise, but research has shown otherwise. People who engage in physical activity rather than competitive sports and had active lifestyles reported feeling in a better mood and having better overall well-being than those who did not. We all have to get around, and biking to work or the grocery store is one of the easiest ways to integrate 30 minutes of non-competitive physical activity, almost effortlessly adding the health benefits of cycling into our daily lives.
Physical Activity Improves Self-Esteem
In the age of social media, we’re constantly being bombarded by the achievements of others. Sometimes we all just need a break from Instagram, and what better way than a little cruise to the beach or the coffee shop? If it makes you feel better about yourself and you get the health benefits of cycling for free while you do it, then why not - you’re wonderful after all!
Aerobic Exercise As An Anti-Depressant
Depression is rife in modern society and can be very difficult to treat effectively and appropriately. The good news is that physical activity can be as effective as psychotherapeutic techniques to treat depression with none of the negative effects. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed a positive link between physical activity and decreased risk of developing depression in later life.
Dom Smith is a busy man. A town planner, road safety officer and project manager, as well as a father to three kids under 12, Dom has experienced anxiety and mental health issues in recent years. He credits bicycling as a major factor in getting him back on his feet.
“Biking has been a key part of my recovery,” explains Dom. “Cycling enables you to get exercise, get fitter and feel better about yourself, whilst being in the great outdoors and seeing the world. To be able to travel purely through the propulsion of your own feet on the pedals in an indescribably cathartic experience”.
Physical Activity Reduces Stress
70% of American adults report feelings of stress at least once a day. Elly Blue, a writer and bicycle activist based in Portland, Ore. argues that people who bicycle and walk to work suffer from lower stress levels, and that stress is both an instigator and an indicator of poor physical health. As Dom puts it “Cycling is 'me time'. With 3 small kids and a demanding full-time job it can be the only time I get to myself– I decompress, take stock of the day and almost magically find solutions to problems without even realizing it. It’s something I can easily build into every working day by simply riding to work, or taking the kids to the pool on their bikes. And kids love riding with me, so its real quality time together too”.
What Dom’s touched upon there with his experience of finding “solutions to problems without even realizing it” is the experience of “flow”, more commonly known today as mindfulness. Cycling has a natural meditative quality – it is at its heart a simple activity, one which tends to focus the mind onto the rhythm of the wheels and the turning of the pedals, allowing thoughts the space to wander and issues in our everyday lives the ability to develop. As freelance journalist Charles Graham-Dixon explains, “I am unable to recall an occasion when a ride of any kind didn’t make potentially difficult life choices simpler when the fears I had before stepping out of the door and climbing on the saddle didn’t dissipate once out on the road”.
Exercising Outdoors is Better for Your Mental Health
Hitting the local gym or pounding laps of your local pool are effective ways of achieving the aforementioned health benefits. But there’s another reason why biking is good for you: exercising outdoors is better than indoors. A study by the Peninsula College of Medicine proved exercising outside brought with it greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement along with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression. In this age when costs are rising more and more, this is all there, and for free!
Cycling Is Sociable
In his best selling 2009 book “Traffic – Why We Drive The Way We Do”, Visiting Scholar at NYU Tom Vanderbilt describes how the motor car has sealed people off from each other, sat in metal boxes behind glass walls, desperate to interact with the world around them but unable to, as described in the opening words from the multiple award-winning film Crash: “In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something”.
Vanderbilt argues that “eye contact may be the most powerful human force we lose in traffic”, and describes the almost awkward moment when you do make eye contact with other drivers at the stop light – do you look away, or give a wry smile? Slow down a bit, to typical cycling and walking speeds, and you find yourself saying “Hi” to a lot more people. You might find yourself having conversations with strangers, which feels, you know, pretty great.
You Don’t Have to Sit in Traffic
Not everyone will ride one of our bikes simply to beat the jams, but if you do, you’ve got some friends on your side. Steve Jobs, who you might have heard of, loved to compare the computer to the bicycle. “The computer … is the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds,” he said. He was talking about efficiency – that a person on a bicycle was more energy efficient than a condor in flight and many times more energy efficient than a person in an automobile. And all of us who drive know the negative impact of sitting in your car for hours.
There is no weirder sight than seeing someone driving to the gym only to go on a running machine for an hour. Spending money to get somewhere you don’t want to be to do something you don’t want to do? Why not just bike to a place you want to be, or at least have to be, while getting all the health benefits of cycling for free?
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The health benefits come standard.
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