We often write about the benefits of exercise for physical and emotional health. While virtually all exercise is beneficial for general, ‘whole body’ health, there are some forms of exercise that are especially great for positive mental health.
Several studies have found that the combination of exercise and exposure to the outdoors is a bit of a magic combination for emotional and mental health – it’s now considered to a key therapeutic component of any strategy to combat depression, anxiety, and stress. Cycling comes up again and again as particularly useful for positive mental health – it’s easily accessible to most of us and the rhythmic, aerobic and low impact nature of cycling, much like other motor skills, has known brain boosting benefits.
Best of all, it’s easy and convenient, especially for city dwellers. It can be easily incorporated into your daily routine by using a bike for your daily commute to work or a quick dash to the nearby shops. Avoid traffic, get a fresh perspective of your city and often save time!
Of course, many people who cycle do it simply because it makes them happy, which is not something to be taken lightly. Beyond the ‘happiness factor’ and the general mental health benefits of exercise which we have discussed here, though are a host of specific benefits that recommend cycling as the part of your ‘first aid kit’ for mental health.
Cycling for positive mental health
- It improves your mood. Regular cyclists often talk about the “cycling high”, cousin to the well-recognised “runner’s high”. Cycling pumps blood around your body at a greater rate which allows for the rapid spread of endorphins and other good substances like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.
- It promotes positive mental health. Self-Esteem, depression, anxiety and stress are all positively affected through exercise, but the nature of cycling has been shown to be one of the most effective activities for the head and heart.
- It helps you sleep better. Regular riding helps synchronise your circadian rhythm and can help to reduce levels of stress hormones that can make proper regenerative, deep sleep difficult.
- Improves your memory. Riding a bike helps to build new brain cells that are responsible for memory. See the ‘your brain on biking’ section later in this piece for more
- Improves creative thinking. The regular, uniform movement of cycling has a relaxing effect on the brain, stabilizing both physical and mental function.
- Cycling promotes new thought patterns that promote feelings of calm and wellbeing. It can be a great way to “zone out,” but you can even use it for a form of meditation. Tip: Concentrate on the actions, each movement of your legs, the rhythm of your breathing, the wind on your face. Focus only on the physical sensations and actions of riding and you may be surprised just how easily your mind clears.
- It may benefit your (ahem) bedroom activities. Cycling exercises the same key muscles we use when making love, so…
Your Brain on Biking
Cycling can grow your brain in the same way it can grow your muscles. Blood flow to the brain increases just as it does with the muscles, bringing in more oxygen and nutrients that can improve its performance.
Riding increases the production of proteins used for creating new brain cells by two or three times the norm! It also increases the activities that allow the different regions of our brain to communicate more effectively.
Cycling has also been shown to counteract the natural decline of brain function and development as we age.
Cycling lends itself quite easily to joining a group of like-minded people, as former Australian Rugby professional Mat Rogers recently advised – “I think that blokes in a cycling bunch would be the least depressed of any group of men because they get stuff off their chest, they talk, and they don’t feel like they’re getting looked down on or judged.”
How often to cycle to get the benefits
Scientists suggest that 30-60 minutes of steady riding at a good pace (no sprinting!) is a good balance. Maintaining a heart rate at roughly 75% of our maximum is also suggested. Three to five sessions a week is enough to get those benefits flowing. It’s an easy and enjoyable addition to your mental health first aid kit.