4 Ways Cycling Can Improve Your Mental Health as We Navigate the “New Normal”

By Megan Flottorp

There is no denying the fact that the impact of COVID-19 on mental health has been tremendous. Many prominent voices in the field of psychology have expressed concern and emphasised the need to devote resources to mental health going forward. As The Guardian reported earlier this year, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has called the pandemic “the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war.” The British Medical Journal, meanwhile, has concluded that “the mental health impact is likely to last much longer than the physical health impact”. 

From creating new feelings of frustration and fear to boredom and loneliness, the pandemic has also exacerbated more serious mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. For example, more than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, an increase from 11% the previous year. Experts suspect that the numbers are fairly similar worldwide. All told, it is crucial to be aware that the impact of the pandemic will be felt for some time. A lot of uncertainty remains, and it will be critical to continue making a concerted effort to support mental health going forward.

Luckily—if you have access to a bicycle, you are already in possession of a powerful tool to help you make positive mental health decisions as we continue to navigate these challenging times. Here are four ways that cycling can help keep you on the right track.

Cycling in nature
Giving your physical body extra attention can have a significant positive impact on your mental wellbeing. © Profimedia

Cycling can provide holistic self-care 

More than just a buzzword, the concept of self-care has become foundational to our ability to adapt to life under a pandemic. During a global health crisis, the need to care for our own health — all aspects of it — is of the utmost importance. In practice, self-care can include many different habits, routines or exercises that are both enjoyable and in some way promote your physical, emotional, spiritual or mental health. According to the definition from the World Health Organization, self-care constitutes all the behaviours you do to take care of your health and can include hygiene, nutrition, leisure activities, sports, e seeking professional healthcare services when needed, and much more.

Cycling is an excellent practice to include in your self-care routine as it provides a way to keep (or get) yourself in shape while having fun and gaining confidence from cultivating a new skill. Whether you’re struggling with the day-to-day of working productively from home (or perhaps returning to the office after a long absence), are navigating a difficult living situation or are dealing with the weight of an uncertain future—cycling provides an outlet.

Cycling can improve the quality of your sleep 

When it comes to taking care of your overall wellbeing, sleep is unequivocally part of the answer. We all understand that getting enough good-quality sleep keeps your immune system running at its best and plays a significant role in how we feel throughout the day. The fact is that the brain needs sleep to function, and when we are tired, we become less patient, struggle to focus, and are generally inclined to be more moody, irritable, and emotional. But, of course, getting a good night’s rest is not an easy feat for many of us.

Studies show that sleep quality is significantly more important than sleep length when it comes to mental health and well-being. © Profimedia

Thankfully—cycling can help. Based on available studies, “we have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality,” says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital. The study she is referencing indicates that moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep we get. Slow-wave sleep is another term for “deep sleep,” where the brain and body have a chance to rest and rejuvenate fully. As Gamaldo explains, “exercise can also help stabilise your mood and decompress the mind, a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep.”

Cycling allows you to set goals and control outcomes 

In a world where so much feels beyond our control, it can be incredibly calming and satisfying to be able to set achievable goals and see the result of one’s effort first-hand. So although you might not be able to have the cycling vacation you’ve been dreaming of this summer, you can still benefit from the feeling of accomplishment that comes from spending time on your bike.

Cycling is also a sport that has something for everyone when it comes to setting goals that can involve both fitness and others aspects of life, such as involvement in the community. These are both essential elements in building our confidence and well-being, and the bike is a tool to reach new heights in both. The pride we feel in ourselves when we achieve a goal, whether that means participating in a cycling fundraiser or conquering our first century, can make a real difference in our current mood and the motivation we are likely to have going forward.

Cycling at sunset
The good news though is that if you’re a cyclist – you’re already part of a globe-spanning, dynamic community that has risen to the occasion and found creative and thoughtful ways to stay connected even during a time of social distancing. © Profimedia

Cycling can help you venture out of your comfort zone

In general, people tend to stick to what they know. But cycling offers a wonderful antidote to this tendency because it presents so many different options for both fitness and recreation. Not to mention, for those who feel shy about doing something as a beginner—cycling is something you can try in the comfort and safety of your own neighbourhood.

And this willingness to try something new offers profound benefits! Learning a new skill helps improve self-confidence and boosts serotonin production. The serotonin released while cycling enhances self-esteem and positivity—keeping us stable both socially and emotionally.

Psychologist Amanda Edkins, who is also a keen road cyclist, sees exercise as a vital tool in treating depression and anxiety. As she explained to Bicycling Australia, “In psychology, whenever we evaluate effective treatments for depression and anxiety, exercise will always feature close to the top of the list. It tends to rate as effective as most anti-depressant medication or counselling alone.”

As you can see, there are many reasons why cycling is a perfect choice of exercise when it comes to improving mood and mental health! In addition to the endorphins it generates, it also has the benefit of being an outdoor activity that can be highly social—both things that make us feel good. So on days when you’re struggling to get out for that ride, just remind yourself of all the benefits that await you. Happy pedalling!