We all want to be fit and healthy. But health isn’t just physical. Having great mental health is incredibly important for our overall wellbeing.
Josephine runs a sports psychology consultancy – Performance in Mind. Her career spans across journalism, PR and crisis communication across private corporations and government. She is a regular contributor to Athletics Weekly & has previously written for Cycling Weekly. She is the proud owner of five bikes and is always looking for an excuse to add another!
Every cyclist has anecdotal evidence about how riding their bike is good for their soul and a survey last year of over 11,000 off-road cyclists backed this up, with 91% of them saying they believe riding to be important for their good mental health. But there is now also a stack of scientific studies that have discovered that spending time on our bike not only gives us a massive boost to our general mental wellbeing but that, for some mental health issues, going out and turning our pedals, can sometimes be as effective as a pill or psychological therapies.
Three debilitating mental health issues; stress, depression and anxiety have been studied by researchers to see whether exercise and cycling can impact the severity with which they are felt or the regularity that episodes appear.
Stress is now so common that a recent study from the Mental Health Foundation found that 59% of British adults felt their life was more stressful than it was five years ago with 47% saying they felt stressed every single day. When we encounter a situation we perceive as stressful we create more of the ‘fight or flight’ chemicals which prepare us for an emergency situation. While these chemicals are highly effective at helping us deal with an actual threat, if they are set off too often we start to become sick from headaches, nausea, indigestion or palpitations. Researchers have found that highly active individuals (especially those doing aerobic exercise) have lower stress rates compared to those who have only low activity levels.
Researchers have also found that exercise is a beneficial treatment for those with both mild and severe (clinical) anxiety. A 1991 analysis of all the relevant studies (to that date) on exercise and anxiety was published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and it found that the most effective exercise ‘prescription’ to reduce anxiety is to exercise at moderate or high intensity, for at least 21 minutes, and continued for over 10 weeks. More recent research adds to this that you need to be exercising three to four times a week.
The benefits of exercise also spread to those with depression, an illness estimated to be suffered by at least 10% of the UK population each year. A study which collated the results of 30 trials in those diagnosed with depression found exercise to be a positive and effective tool to reduce depressive symptoms. Further research has found it to have a similar effect on depressive symptoms as medication or psychological therapies. The ‘prescription’ to reduce depressive symptoms matches the public health guidelines of 150 minutes a week, split over five days, but importantly here it has been found that exercising at your preferred intensity has a better impact in reducing depression than exercising at a prescribed intensity.
So riding our bike can help if we have a mental health diagnosis but what about supporting our overall mental wellbeing? I have often come back from a ride finding I have a much clearer head, I feel more creative and I am better able to make a difficult decision. Neuroscientists have been researching to see if this is true for all of us and whether the science backs it up. They have found that when we do vigorous exercise our frontal executive network system (the part of our brain just behind our forehead) gets increased blood flow. This is the area is linked with planning, focus and concentration and goal-setting suggesting that exercising is giving us cognitive clarity. Another part of the brain benefiting from exercise is the hippocampus, the part associated with learning and memory. Scientists used to think that we got a set amount of neurons and that by the time we reached adulthood we couldn’t make any more, but recent studies have found one activity that can trigger new neurons to develop: vigorous aerobic exercise. And it is in the hippocampus that these new neurons grow. Additionally, researchers have found when we cycle regularly we also increase our physical and general self-esteem. And those with high self-esteem tend to have high life satisfaction, resilience and greater achievement in education and work.
Exercise has also been found to help us cope with distressing emotions. A great piece of research from Harvard University found that those who exercised for 30 minutes before watching an emotional video clip (it was the final scene of the 1979 film The Champ if you are curious) recovered from the negative emotion much quicker than those who had just stretched for 30 minutes instead. Indicating that exercise can help us bounce back quicker when negative things do happen to us.
Looking across the studies on how exercise improves our mental wellbeing, the ‘prescription’ would be to complete low intensity aerobic exercise, for around 30-35 minutes, three to five days per week for at least 12 weeks.
Finally, if you really want to boost your mental wellbeing, head out of the town and into the countryside. Researchers have found that being in the natural environment can reduce stress and help us recover better from stressful events. Most helpfully the benefits are often found to be amplified if we are not only spending time in the rural outdoors but also exercising in it.
All this research indicates the power of the pedal is not just physical, but increasingly mental. Giving us a fantastic excuse to get on our bikes and go out riding.
Groups and links
Sustrans – Great advice on cycling opportunities and groups all over the country.
Cycling UK – Guided rides for those with mental health worries in Yorkshire.