Whatever the reason for your cycling, one thing’s for sure – your two-wheeled habit can be as good for your mental health as it is for your body.
“Cycling is one of the most effective treatments for stress and in many cases has been proven to be as effective as medication – if not more so,” says Neil Shah of the Stress Management Society, adding that many more doctors now prescribe exercise therapy as their most common treatment for stress and depression than they did five years ago.
“Riding a bike is ideal because it’s so accessible and achievable – and the mountain of scientific evidence pointing towards its stress-busting properties is growing by the day.
“All too often, people look for a cure to stress once the horse has bolted, when it’s much healthier to develop ways to deal with stress on a day-to-day level before it gets to that stage.”
Thursday 10 October is World Mental Health Day, with the aim of promoting awareness and open conversation around mental health. For more information, visit the World Health Organisation website and, for further support and advice, visit Mind or CALM.
Why exercise feels good
Perhaps the best known mental health exercise boost is the ‘runner’s high’ experienced by endurance athletes, proven by German researchers to be more than a rather pleasant figment of the imagination.
University of Bonn neurologists visualised endorphins in the brains of 10 volunteers before and after a two-hour running session using a technique called positive emission tomography (PET).
Comparing the pre- and post-run scans, they found evidence of more opiate binding of the happy hormone in the frontal and limbic regions of the brain, areas known to be involved in emotional processing and stress.
“There’s a direct link between feelings of wellbeing and endurance exercise of all kinds, and for the first time this study proves the physiological mechanism behind that,” says study co-ordinator Professor Henning Boecker.
And because the runner’s high only seems to kick in after at least an hour’s exercise, ironically you’re more likely to experience it in the saddle than on foot.
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The mind-body connection doesn’t stop there. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that an improvement of only five percent in cardiorespiratory fitness from aerobic exercise led to an improvement of up to 15 percent in mental tests and ability to deal with stress.
“It boosts blood flow – and, in turn, oxygen – to your brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, explaining how exercise helps ward off Alzheimer’s,” says study author Professor Arthur Kramer.
And when it comes to rhythm, cycling knows no equal. “Stress makes your heart beat faster, which leads to shallow, fast breathing, a build-up of CO2 and a lack of oxygen in the brain, leading to more stress,” says Shah.
“Cycling actually forces you to regulate your breathing, as well as to breathe deeper to expel any lingering CO2 – both key methods used to alleviate stress in non-riders, so you’re practising proven clinical techniques.”
And, according to psychologists at the University of Bristol in the UK, expanding your lungs lifts your diaphragm, taking pressure off the nerve centre in your solar plexus and relieving the stress on your central nervous system.
A common problem with stress is finding the ‘off’ switch, and without sufficient sleep that just isn’t possible, according to Professor Jim Horne from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the UK.
“Reducing regular sleep by just one hour each night can lead to a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, which can prevent deep, regenerative sleep, making it even harder to sleep,” he says. “Exercise is the one factor that has been shown to redress that imbalance.”
So those hill intervals won’t just wear you out in the short-term, they’ll also help you catch some quality shut-eye. “Exercising outside also exposes you to daylight, which helps get your circadian rhythm back in sync,” says Horne.
And the social side of cycling could be doing you as much good as the exercise. UCLA researchers found that socialising releases the hormone oxytocin, which buffers the ‘fight or flight’ response to calm you down.
Another study from Harvard Medical School found those with the most friends cut their risk of death by more than 60 percent, reducing blood pressure and strengthening the immune system.
The results were so significant, researchers concluded, that not having close friends is as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight. Factor in cycling and you’ll be fighting fit for a long time to come.
Four ways to de-stress when not cycling
Researchers at West Virginia University found that 35 participants who underwent ‘mindfulness meditation’ saw a 44 percent reduction in psychological distress over three months. “Just sit quietly, focusing on one point on a wall in front of you, and breathe deeply in and out through your nose for a full three seconds. Repeat this for 10 minutes,” says Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University.
2. Soak up some sun
Just 10 minutes in the sun can make a tremendous difference to your stress levels. “It’s because we have a plant-like nature,” says Stephany Biello, a psychology professor at the University of Glasgow. “We get a powerful surge of energy from sunlight.”
3. Have coffee with friends
Researchers at Bristol University discovered that when stressed-out workers consumed caffeine by themselves, they remained nervous and jittery, but when anxious execs caffeine-loaded as part of a group, their feelings of stress subsided. “Taking caffeine in a group seems to have a venting effect, helping you to vent uncluttered anxieties and communicate better, leading to lower overall stress levels,” says Biello.
4. Fuel up
“While there’s a strong psychological element to stress, your ability to deal with whatever life throws at you is made easier with the right diet,” says nutritionist Jane Clarke. “
The main recommendations are slow-release carbs, which help to reduce energy dips and feelings of lethargy during the day, and B vitamins, part of the assembly line that manufactures feel-good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine for an immediate pick-you-up.”
In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, a lack of B6 can cause nervousness, stress, irritability and even depression. Top sources of B6 are eggs and leafy greens, including spinach and pulses.