Happy mental health awareness week, I am very mindful of my mental health.
Every year in this week (May 9 to May 15, 2022, in the UK) I make this downright awful joke with a father, telling us to think about ourselves and the mental health of our peers. A perfect time to think about something that can help, like cycling.
It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be particularly heavy, it doesn’t even have to be outside; a short indoor pedal can unleash the benefits of cycling. This can be on your own, with a friend or with a cycling club. Just stretch your legs and try to get out of your own head a little bit.
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve certainly been all too aware of how much cycling (and running, I admit) can help my mind, ease my anxiety and depression. Just an hour or so of practice can change the whole shape of a day, trust me.
I also take antidepressants, but sometimes it’s just a quick spin on the pedals that really helps.
To join the Mental Health Awareness Week, Weekly cycling spoke with chartered sports and exercise psychologist Josephine Perry to find out how and why horseback riding can help your head.
The Dopamine Boost of Exercise
It should be obvious to anyone who does exercise that a positive flow of energy can be gained just by doing a little bit of it. The legendary ‘runner’s high’ is real and is not far away from anyone; it may just be a ten minute cycle that boosts your mood.
“We know that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants at addressing depressive symptoms,” says Perry. “So that’s obviously one of the biggest things, for me, about dealing with a mental health problem the way you have it. One of the nice things about something like riding a bike is you get the dopamine boost when you’re done. But you get also feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
I know that getting on a bike, breathing some fresh air, seeing some countryside can help change my whole way of thinking. Of course a bike ride is not a substitute for therapy or antidepressants/SSRIs, but it can really help. Its implementation is controversial and may pack a punch, but the idea of GPs prescribing exercise isn’t as preposterous as it sounds.
Yes, a ‘dumb walk for my sanity’ has become a cliché, but the lockdowns of recent years have proven how important time outside is. Obviously this can be difficult for some, so don’t forget how helpful some time on a bike trainer can help too.
“It can be really hard when you have things like depression or anxiety where it feels like you’re sitting pretty still and you can’t move forward,” explains Perry. “Maybe you look around other people and you feel like you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Something like riding a bike is really good because you can physically see that you’ve transported yourself from one place to another. So you feels that performance.”
It’s one of the many things I love about living in South Bristol; the fact that I can be in the countryside in 10 minutes is really going crazy. If you do live within easy reach of this, a short time out of town can be the difference between feeling stuck and clearing your head a bit.
Connecting with others
Cycling offers an opportunity to connect with others on multiple levels. Even if you are not the most sociable person, you feel like you belong to a tribe. Maybe a nod or a chat during a bike ride is all you need to boost your mental health.
Of course, there are also things like cycling clubs and social rides that can offer much more in terms of meaningful connection. Riding with someone new or old and talking about what’s going on in your head can sometimes be a lot easier than intense one-on-one over a phone conversation or over a table.
“It’s a good way to connect with other people,” says Perry. “The Theme of Mental Health Awareness Week [this year is] loneliness. Last year a book came out called the 10 Pillars of Success. It looks at the 10 characteristics in life that we need if we want to be really successful. The first chapter was part of it, and it was the first for a reason.”
I think both running and cycling clubs are a great opportunity to meet new people, which can often be difficult as an adult. This is especially true during the pandemic, which has increased isolation, but on a more positive note, many more people have taken up sports since Covid started. This means that clubs are often bursting at the seams with people to meet.
I moved to a new city in 2020 as a 25-year-old, which wasn’t the ideal time to meet people and make new friends, but cycling has been a central part of the way I finally felt more at home.
“When we don’t feel like we belong, we have that feeling of loneliness, of being outside, of not being wanted, of not being attached to others,” Perry says. “Cycling can be a really, really great way to fit in.”
More than that, cycling can be a great identity, so being a part of it can just be a good thing. Social media platforms like Strava allow people to see what others are up to and check in.
Perry explains: “Even though I have a lot of issues with Strava, the fact that you’re there, and you see other people and you may not have driven with them, but you’ve been driving the same roads, and you’re reconnecting with people.” You can see people enjoying the same things you enjoy, building a sense of belonging.”
By cycling you can achieve something and enjoy
When you’re in a deep depression, or in a spiral of anxiety, it can be very difficult to feel like you’ve accomplished anything. A simple bike ride is a great way to tick something off for the day, even if you’ve found yourself sitting indoors most of the day or not getting out of bed.
Perry uses something called the ACE list when chatting with people with depression, which can incorporate something like cycling.
Here’s her explanation of the system:
“A stands for performance. So we put 10 things on there that we feel like an achievement on a bad day, and that could be going outside or taking a shower. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes on the bike trainer or a short ride outside to the store. They feel like little things, but they still help us move further than we would without those little goals.
“The C stands for communication. We try to choose people in that person’s life that they try to connect with one person every day while going through a depressive episode. It doesn’t have to be a phone call or anything scary. It’s literally their short WhatsApp message or comment on someone’s messages but a way to reach and touch other people in the world.
“Then the E is enjoyment. So if you enjoy something, make sure you do it a little bit every day. Most of us know that we usually feel better after a ride. Not always, but most of the time we do do that, and we know it’s an easy way to get some of that reward feeling, to feel like we’ve accomplished something, and actually spend the time doing something else, and then we come back to feel more of ourselves.”
Make it a part of your life, not your whole life
I really notice it when I don’t cycle or run for a while. Not just in terms of fitness, which is perhaps more immediately apparent – that belly coming back – but in terms of my mental health.
Recently, thanks to some travel for Weekly cyclingCovided and a running injury, I didn’t exercise at my normal pace for a few weeks, which really affected my mood and how I felt about myself.
This proves how important cycling and running are to my mind, but Perry cautions that it shouldn’t become too important, as exercise addiction is very real. Plus, everyone can get stuck on the couch for a variety of reasons, so you really shouldn’t make the most of it in your life.
“Cycling is great for your mental health,” Perry tells me. “However, you can take it too seriously. When it becomes a core part of your identity, there are risks: things like overtraining, sports addiction, impact on other areas of your life.
†[As long as you maintain perspective, cycling] should be a wonderful addition to your life. When it gets to be anything, even if you’re professional, there are some mental health risks associated with it.”
Especially in the cycling world, where weight is often seen as important, exercise addiction can often be linked to eating disorders and the idea of control. This can be dangerous when thinking about mental health.
“A lot of exercise addiction is because people are trying to purge calories,” explains Perry. “Often we find disordered eating in someone’s background, I will often find that with top cyclists that eating is a kind of control mechanism.
“If they can’t control the food they will control how much exercise they do. If you have a coach it’s about really good communication and listening to their advice that they can notice when you’re doing too much. We definitely get people who do a lot more move than anything that will ever be useful for performance.’
The important thing is to watch out for this sign and make sure that exercise is part of a balanced mental health regimen, just as a balanced diet is better than just eating salad all the time.
“The most important thing to watch out for when we see someone have an addiction is when it causes problems for the rest of their lives,” Perry says. “So that could be fights with your partner, because you’re not doing your part at home, because you’re always on your bike, or other people start worrying about you. Or you miss deadlines at university or at work, because cycling has priority.”
Happy mental health awareness week
While I hope this has at least inspired someone to get their bike out of the garage and go for a spin for their mind, this should at least have got you thinking.
This week for mental health awareness, reach out to friends, ask them how they are doing. These can be tricky questions, so you can ask them to rate their mental health out of ten, or just have a chat. You never know how much you could help someone just by saying hello.