Cycling and Seasonal Affective Disorder

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.

>> Fuelling the Winter Cyclist <<

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.

>> Ride Young: Cycle yourself to a younger you <<

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.


>>Read our top tips for winter riding motivation here<<



Crash Mat 10/02/2017

Spot on, cycling is a great way of cheering yourself up and keeping yourself positive. I get an enormous sense of well being after most rides, its a fantastic tonic. If I cant get out I get moody…
I have met new people through cycling and i’m fitter than I was 3 yrs ago when I took up MTB, shame I didn’t take it up when I was younger. Cycling is a brilliant hobby/sport.
Regardless of the weather I am out there, having fun, getting muddy, getting lost and occasionally falling off. Cycling is the most effective way for me to “be happy”

Paul Foden 10/02/2017

Although I enjoy going out for a hack with a few mates, I find that cycling solo also enhances my mood in that you can often put the world to rights and find solutions to most of life’s little hang-ups, uninterrupted by chat, or at least find a direction in which to do so.
So, it’s probably better to get yourself out there, even on your own.

Ree Bee 10/02/2017

Totally agree. SAD has played a significant role in my life, I was even bought a light box as a present from my parents for Christmas! (Actually works, too!) I do find that my mood is definitely perked up after riding to work but, conversely, I really only notice it when I haven’t ridden in.
I’ve tried joining a club near me, but, although I know local cyclists, I don’t hear of them doing anything social at weekends as such.

Garry A Langmead 10/02/2017

Can’t wait for the morning . 1 degree at 8 o’clock . Out on bike for exercise and contemplation for a couple of hours .
Get home wash bike , wash self , drink soup . Feel happy

Debra Mostyn-Jones 11/02/2017

I would definitely agree with the benefits mentioned above,I have been cycling to work 12 miles each way for 3 and a half years now, during this time 2 and a half years ago I sadly lost my beautiful big sister to the dreaded big C, I pedalled through the grief and thought I was coping very well until I had my bike stolen in January and bam it has hit me like a ton of bricks, feeling really sad right now. All the bikes that were stolen from us 4 in total have been replaced, just disappointed that my Evans voucher paid for by LV insurance has not been received to buy mudguards for the bikes so I can ride to work again, and connect with my sister in a happier mood.

Sara 12/02/2017

I’m feeling pretty sad that I can’t be out cycling – but have a 3’C minimum temperature threshold for ice and bad circulation issues!

wayne 20/02/2017

Riding your bike will make you feel better. I don’t suffer from SAD but if I don’t ride i don’t feel as good, my mood drops. So, get out there and ride, you will feel better for it, guaranteed!!!!!

Dave k 25/02/2017

I get really down when winter comes, wish I could live in a warmer climate, then I get wrapped up, and out on my bike and I love where I live , so many fantastic views , they are the reward at the end of the climb.


Leave a reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *