Professional psychologist, and life-long cycling enthusiast Tim Acton explores why cycling in winter is an excellent way of managing Seasonal Affective Disorder.
(header image credit: Ryan Melaugh)
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is medical way of referring to feeling depressed in the winter. The people who measure these things suggest that 6% of the UK population experience this condition. Many of these people are cyclists, and I would argue that adults who experience SAD and don’t cycle, during the winter, or haven’t cycled for a long time, should think about doing so.
Medical experts say SAD can be treated the same way as depression. The trouble is, there is no evidence for the effectiveness of the normal treatments for depression in SAD, with one exception (the drug Bupropion). But, this drug comes with a list of formidable side-effects, with only 1 in 5 people benefitting while being at risk of harmful side effects.
Light Therapy and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy are popular treatments, but the evidence suggests that neither treatment has demonstrated benefits for SAD reliably in large controlled studies.
So, why turn to cycling?
There is much to recommend cycling as an effective form of managing SAD, and it could be a lot less harmful than trying Bupropion.
Cycling is an efficient and sometimes enjoyable form of exercise.
The benefits of exercise are well known, include a positive impact on mood from the effects of endorphins.
Cycling in winter combats the effects of hibernation, which is a strong maintaining factor for low mood in SAD.
Cycling can be a social activity, especially if you belong to a club. Social withdrawal is depressing and acting against this tendency can reverse the effects of depression.
Similarly, being less active is a characteristic of depression.
Even the simple idea of planning a cycling event, and carrying it out means that a degree of activity is involved which can reverse this powerful maintaining factor.
There are many other factors to consider.
One of these is the opportunity for problem solving that seems to happen whenever I go out cycling. Getting a puncture, which is surely one of the most tedious hazards of cycling is annoying at the time, but fixing a puncture also give a sense of achievement. Asking for help in these situations can lead to unexpected exchanges.
Getting to the top of a long hill, can yield a sense of achievement in proportion to the blood, sweat and tears shed.
Strangely, cycling through heavy rain seems an unlikely source of good feeling, but I’m sure a lot of cyclists will recognise the positive experience of emerging from it.
Likewise, map reading, and discussing and solving other problems that crop up, provide opportunities to register positive feeling.
Finally, there is the exhilaration of speed, and the everyday experience of cycling through a fine winter’s day – these rewards are irreplaceable, and likely to boost even the most entrenched SAD.
Give it a go; avoiding doing this will mean nothing will change; but if you give it go, something beneficial may happen.