How cycling can help improve your mental health | Seven essential tips for the coronavirus lockdown

How to reap the rewards of riding during the coronavirus outbreak

A lone male cyclist riding a Pinarello

Taking to two wheels has well-established mental health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, boosting your mood, and improving self-esteem.


Dr Ruth Anderson, former lead psychologist for the Great Britain Cycling Team and author of The Cycling Mind says there is “a clear and direct link between physical activity and good mental health. Getting out on a bike for just a relatively short period of time is a fantastic way to combat the stress of everyday life and enhance your psychological wellbeing.”

The coronavirus outbreak has seen those rewards more sought after than ever before, with the current lockdown guidelines still permitting Brits to exercise outdoors once a day (at the time of writing).

However, a survey of more than 540 UK cyclists by insurance firm Cycleplan reveals almost 80 per cent of riders fear their mental health will be negatively affected should the government enforce a nationwide confinement without daily exercise.

How then can we responsibly reap the rewards of riding during the coronavirus outbreak – and cope with not cycling should circumstances change?

Cyclist riding through a field on a gravel bike
Cycling has well-established mental health benefits.
Russell Burton/Immediate Media

Get outdoors

While staying home is crucial to helping save lives right now, UK government advice does permit a period of exercise outdoors on your own or with members of your household, which the experts insist we use to boost our physical and mental wellbeing.

“It can be hard to begin to accept this new normal of life under lockdown, but it’s important we take steps to look after our physical and mental health, and of those around us,” says Simon Gunning, CEO for mental health support group CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably).

“Whatever your background, age or ability, cycling, like all forms exercise, can help reduce stress and anxiety, boost your mood and self-esteem. Heading outdoors and getting your blood pumping is a great way to get out of your head.”

If you can’t get outside, indoor cycling can still bring many of the physical and mental rewards of the open road, with the wide range of training apps available today helping to stave off the boredom typically associated with the turbo trainer.

Conquer anxiety

The unprecedented and uncertain situation we find ourselves in, alongside the psychological impact of lockdown restrictions, can combine to increase stress and anxiety.

“This is a very good time to learn relaxation skills,” suggests Dr Michael Barnish, head of genetics and nutrition for REVIV. Progressive muscular relaxation, breathing techniques and mindfulness can all help reduce anxiety, according to Barnish.

“The easiest way to add some mindfulness into your day is to concentrate on your breathing, by breathing in for four seconds, holding it for a further four seconds and breathing out over eight seconds,” he adds.

“Doing this for one minute, upon waking and before sleep, is a simple way to really bring your body into the moment and focus the mind away from all thoughts. It is a proven technique to reduce stress, anxiety and even can help with depression.”

Keeping tabs on your friends' riding habits is one of the main appeals of Strava
Stay in touch with other cyclists, even if you can’t ride with them.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Stay connected

“Social contact is vital at this point in time,” says Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance. Whatsapp, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Strava, Zwift group rides and cycling forums can all help combat loneliness at a time when cyclists aren’t able to ride in groups.

“Human beings are social and being in isolation is a strong predictor of poor mental health,” adds Lane. “Social media offers a great way to connect.”

Stick to simple routes

If you choose to ride outside, cut your risk of injury or chances of getting stranded by a mechanical by sticking to routes you know and staying local.

“Although the roads are empty right now and the temptation may be to go further afield, it’s safer to stay on routes you know,” says Lane.

Ride within yourself and remember to observe social distancing guidelines.

“It goes without saying whatever you do – follow the government advice on social distancing when exercising,” says Gunning from CALM.

Ease off the gas

“Take advantage of the additional time you have right now – such as several hours a day freed up by not having to commute – to find new interests, or work on areas that will improve your cycling when you’re back on the road,” says Lane.

“Exercising at home not only provides the physical and hormonal boost you need, but it can help you condition areas of the body that don’t get worked on when cycling is your only form of exercise.”

Lane recommends tuning in to the wealth of remote instructor-led home workout, core exercise and yoga sessions springing up online to help stay in good physical shape during lockdown – or check out the articles below on BikeRadar.

Build a routine

“From financial worries, to anxiety around you and your loved ones’ health, it’s easy for thoughts to become overwhelming,” warns CALM’s Gunning.

While at home, Gunning recommends striking a balance between establishing a routine and making sure each day has some variety.

“If you’re finding the change difficult, it might help to build yourself a new routine – getting up, eating and doing familiar things at set times can help you to feel a little more in control of the situation,” he says.

However, don’t be afraid to change up your routine, Gunning advises. While the coronavirus lockdown can make everyday life repetitive, simple things can help improve your motivation, keep you active and reduce boredom.

“Do your daily exercise,” says Gunning, “or keep a to-do list so you can see you’re achieving something. Go for a ride, Skype your mates – even doing mundane things like cleaning the oven can help. All of it will help to keep you active and reduce boredom – apart from the oven thing!”

Make up a batch of this hearty curry and freeze it, ready to feast on after those long rides when you can't face cooking
Use the coronavirus lockdown to cook up a storm.
Olive Magazine

Get cooking

Working on your nutritional intake, while developing new culinary skills, has all-round health benefits. And with many people now having more time on their hands, this could be an opportunity to cook up a storm.

“Cooking from scratch is essential for boosting both mood and health as fresh, non-processed foods are the best for your health,” adds Dr Barnish. Not only will cooking help to feed your creative juices, but it can bring the people in your household together, says Barnish.

“It’s a fantastic way to learn, laugh and create,” he adds. “Tired looking vegetables can be easily be boiled up to make a soup with some stock – very easily done, good for the environment and tasty.

“Freezing leftovers will make sure that you stay well stocked up – and be sure to include immunity boosting foods such as spinach, kale, broccoli, garlic, turmeric and ginger.”