Cycling for mental healthRead Now
This is important. No really it is. It might even be worth reading
It is well recognised we have growing worldwide crises in mental and physical health. Modern life sees the world getting increasingly sedentary and fatter whilst at the same time being less fulfilled, satisfied or happy. The dubious silver lining to this malaise is that modern medicine now means we get to enjoy ill health and depression for a lot longer. Thanks a lot Doc.
If only there was something out there, available to everyone, without prescription or unwanted side-effects that could alleviate our growing mental and physical health. It wouldn’t be popular with the drug companies; they invent new diseases and conditions for their new drugs to treat, but what an amazing discovery that would be.
So, good news…
The benefits of exercise on physical health are well established. Improvements in cardiovascular capacity, increased bone density, decreased blood pressure and blood sugar levels mean by taking regular exercise we reduce the risk of dying from our most popular killers – heart attack, stroke and cancer. What is less well known is that physical activity has a similarly positive impact on our mental health.
In the short term, exercise increases levels of the brain's neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin) which elevated mood. Simply put, exercise makes you immediately happier. In the medium term, exercise promotes a measurable shift in brain function that leads to enhanced attention and improvement in reaction times. Longer term, it provides a significant measure of protection against developing degenerative brain diseases in older age, notable Alzheimer’s, by altering brain physiology. New brain cells grow in the hippocampus, strengthening the brain and protecting (potentially even reversing) cognitive decline and memory loss.
A seminal 1999 study (Blummenthal et al) showed that regular planned physical activity is at least as effective as our most potent anti-depressant drugs in alleviating clinical depression over 16 weeks. Equally importantly, the results were longer lasting – perhaps unsurprisingly as only about 30% of patients prescribed anti-depressants take them. Blummenthal’s work has subsequently been supported by numerous later studies. It’s proper science.
How much exercise, how long and how hard? Research suggest about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise at 75-85% of maximum heart rate per week will do the job. So, 30 mins five times a week. Whilst I would strongly recommend cycling as your drug of choice, pretty much anything will do, including brisk walking, swimming, team sports etc. The gym works too apparently – the current thinking is that a combination of aerobic and weight bearing exercise is, in fact, ideal.
Why isn’t everybody doing it?
Well, increasing numbers of people do use cycling as an enjoyable adjunct to their health, fitness and well-being regime but there are barriers to starting any kind of exercise regime. There are also excuses – lack of time, facilities, motivation, self-consciousness, body image, laziness, the list goes on. However, the growth in the number of cyclists who don’t want to race but do want to ride in social groups has been significant, often helped by HSBC Breeze and growing local cycling clubs and triathlon scene. There’s a growing Strava community and more people engaging in static bike work using turbo trainers, Zwift, Peloton, Wattbikes and the like. However, the barriers to cycling are perhaps even harder to hurdle than for somebody brave enough to take on a park run. Newcomers to the sport are often nervous about riding on public roads and, before you even get to be told to ‘get off and milk it’ or answer questions about ‘road tax’ to drivers who have lost their shit, you have to sort out equipment, deal with bike shops and ingrained outdated attitudes of some.
Should you choose cycling as your therapy, I can help you jump the barriers. More importantly, I can help you leap gracefully over two of the biggest fences – motivation and adherence. Having a program designed for you, that you’ve invested time and money in and knowing that every session you do will be reviewed and feedback given will keep you going. It might even make you happier!
If you don’t fancy taking to two wheels (or the indoor equivalent), maybe choose something, anything, that gets your blood pumping a bit. The long term physical and mental benefits of regular aerobic exercise are proven.
Rich Smith credits cycling with keeping him comparatively sane. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property. Those 30 years didn't make him that happy.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...