Health: Ride yourself happy

Regular pedalling boosts mental well being

Let’s start with a shocking statistic: 60% of adults over 50 are not obtaining a recommended amount of combined leisure-time, transportation, and household physical activity [1]. It is probably a case of preaching to the converted, but, knowing the facts can keep you on the straight and narrow, and can also empower you to encourage inactive friends and family.


We probably all know that we feel better, are generally more positive and have greater self-esteem when we exercise. How many times have you felt stressed, the world weighing on your shoulders, only for this pressure to subside as you ride home, spin on the indoor trainer, or return from a quick hour around your favourite loop. Many times I would suggest, and that’s why we keep exercising: it makes us feel (and look) better than our sedentary peers.  

Having some evidence can make you feel even better and then you “know” you’re doing yourself some good. Forget about the physical benefits, the balance and mental acuity are just as important.

However, let us make this clear: most studies that look at the activity-mental health association consider walking and such low intensity activities as an acceptable level of work to derive benefits. Thankfully 20 hours a week in the saddle is not a prerequisite for mental health.

A study published in 2006 on over 6,000 adults from 20 to 88 adds further weight to the argument that exercise equals well being [2].

Looking at scores of fitness using a maximal treadmill test together with assessing depression and well being by questionnaire the researchers found a statistically significant set of findings [2]: 1. Depressive symptoms were lower as fitness level improved in both sexes 2. Feelings of physical well being increased as fitness increases across both sexes 3. The greater your physical activity the lower both depressive symptoms and low scores of well-being

Again no rocket-science findings here, but over such a vast number of people covering eight years of research at the Cooper Institute in Dallas it gives a rock solid seal of approval to a side of your riding you probably part recognize but with so much focus on fitness, power, VO2max etc,. sometimes overlook.

Pregnant thoughts

Pregnant may be something that only women can be but it still affects those around them. Although some are lucky many pregnant women suffer from mood swings, depression symptoms often occurring at 18-32 weeks of pregnancy. Meanwhile physical activity can reduce, part due to comfort and part due to many old wives tales about not being able to exercise when pregnant.

A study recently looked at the affect that activity has on mood during pregnancy [3]. Using 18 pregnant women they assessed physical activity from a diary and motion sensor data, plus mood questionnaires at every four week point. When data was analysed after the 36 week point the activity questionnaire correlated well with accelerometer data, meaning that activity could be correctly assessed.

Of most interest the mood stability was improved in women who maintained above average levels of physical activity (200-300 kcal/kg/week) [3]. Cycling is non impact and indoors riding means the fear of falling off is minimal and if needed the session can be ended instantly. So, indoor riding can bring improved mood and keep mum healthy as the baby grows. The only concern is preventing heat build up so a strong electric fan should be used from the very start of the session to reduce the risk of over-heating.

Study time!

Anotther recent study from Illinois, USA gives further evidence that exercise can augment brain power.

Using 110 students researchers looked at a battery of fitness criteria (eg endurance run, push-ups, body mass index, etc) then selected the low and high scoring subjects to represent low and high fitness students [4].

All subjects were also assessed for IQ, visual cognitive speed by presenting randomly arranged pictures and activity. Additionally they were wired up to an electroencephalogram to measure brain activity across various regions of the skull. This allowed researchers to look at how fitness levels related to brain function. Their conclusion is very telling: “We found that aerobic fitness was positively associated with neuroelectric function and behavioural performance in preadolescent children engaged in a stimulus discrimination task”

Put more simply: fit children have better functioning brains. 

This research makes promotion of active pastimes and sports something we older humans should be engaged in for the well being of younger generations and it’s good for you at any stage of life too. Research on elderly subjects from 70 to 90 suggests that walking alone “is associated with a reduced risk of dementia” [5]. Across most age groups it appears that exercise of even a modest amount helps to keep the brain functioning better.

The bottom line is you don’t need to break 20 minutes for 10-miles or win a Grand Tour to gain positive mental health benefits from riding. As Max Ehrmann wrote in his 1927 Desiderata: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself”. 


[1] Brown, D. et al (2005) Physical activity among adults >50yr with and without disabilities, BRFSS 2001. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 37(4): 620-629.

[2] Galper, D.I. et al (2006) Inverse 

association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women. Med. Sci. Sports. Exerc. 38(1): 173-178. 

[3] Poudevigne, M.S. & O’Connor, P.J. (2005) Physical activity and mood during pregnany. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 37(8): 1374-1380. 

[4] Hillman, C. et al (2005) Aerobic fitness and neurocognitive function in healthy preadolescent children. Med. Sci.


Sports Exerc. 37(11): 1967-1974. [5] Abbott, R.D., et al. 2004. Walking and dementia in physically capable elderly men. Journal of the American Medical Association 292:1447-1453.