Use Cycling to Get Your Mental Health on Track

By Megan Flottorp

Imagine feeling sharper, happier, and more energised simply by getting outside and enjoying the spring sunshine. Sounds too good to be true, right? Not necessarily. Did you know there is research suggesting that exercise can spur new brain cell growth in mature mice? 

Of course, this isn’t the first we have heard about how exercise like cycling can support cognition and mood. Mountains of evidence now support what many of us intuitively know: exercise isn’t just about physical fitness; it’s a potent tool for boosting mental health. Studies show it offers short-term cognitive boosts, improving memory and focus. Think of it like a natural brainpower upgrade delivered straight after a brisk bike ride!

And let’s not forget the mood boost. Exercise triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, leaving you feeling positive and energised –  the perfect antidote to stress and low mood.

Let’s explore the science behind cycling’s unique mental health benefits and how you can use this exhilarating activity to get yourself on track this spring. 

The science of a cycling high

The feel-good effects of cycling are rooted in well-established science. In addition to the potential generation of new brain cells mentioned above — here are some other ways that hitting the pavement can positively impact your mental health:

Sunshine and the vitamin D advantage: Spring sunshine is a rich source of vitamin D, a crucial nutrient for overall health, including mental well-being. Studies have shown a strong link between low vitamin D levels and depression. Sunlight exposure helps the body produce vitamin D, which in turn plays a role in regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin, a key player in mood stability. So, those spring rides with their generous doses of sunshine are like a natural mood booster.

The endocannabinoid system and an exercise-induced lift:  The “cycling high” you experience after a good ride isn’t just imagination. Exercise stimulates the body’s endocannabinoid system, which produces natural cannabinoids. These cannabinoids play a role in regulating mood, pain perception, and reward processing, contributing to the feelings of euphoria and relaxation associated with exercise.

Mindfulness in motion: Cycling can be a valuable form of moving meditation. The rhythmic pedalling and the focus required to navigate your surroundings create a sense of mindfulness. This allows you to detach from daily worries and become present in the moment, a practice known to reduce stress, improve focus, and enhance overall well-being. Studies have shown mindfulness meditation can be effective in treating anxiety and depression.

Cycling in Alps
The “cycling high” you experience after a good ride isn’t just imagination. © Profimedia

The social and emotional benefits of cycling

Of course, the mental health benefits of cycling extend beyond the physiological. Cycling can be a social activity, fostering a sense of connection and belonging. Joining a cycling group or riding with a friend can provide much-needed social interaction, a vital component of mental well-being. Cycling groups often develop strong bonds, offering camaraderie, support, and motivation.

Furthermore, cycling can boost self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment. Completing a challenging ride or reaching a new distance can be incredibly empowering, fostering a sense of self-efficacy and confidence that spills over into other areas of life.

Going even deeper: Protecting your mental health long-term

Perhaps most remarkable, consistent exercise might even offer protection against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Researchers believe this magic happens through a cascade of cellular changes. When you exercise, your muscles release molecules that travel to the brain, some with neuroprotective qualities.  Exercise also improves blood flow and stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, creating a highway for these beneficial molecules to reach their destination.

Once these signals arrive, the brain releases its own star player: Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).  Think of BDNF as a brain fertiliser, promoting the health of neurons and fostering new connections between them — translating to a brain with more resilience, better memory, and sharper overall performance.

The benefits are even more pronounced in older adults, where exercise can help offset the natural decline in brain volume. This is particularly crucial for the hippocampus, a key player in memory and mood. Studies show that regular exercise can prevent hippocampus shrinkage, a hallmark of both depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cycling for mental health: A personalised approach

The beauty of cycling as a mental health tool lies in its versatility. Whether you’re seeking a quick stress reliever, a mindful escape, or a way to connect with others, there’s a cycling experience waiting for you.

Here are some ways to tailor your cycling experience for optimal mental health benefits:

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for stress relief: Studies show that HIIT workouts, which involve alternating periods of intense exertion with rest, can effectively reduce stress and anxiety. You can incorporate HIIT into your cycling by incorporating short bursts of speed into your rides.

Mindful cycling for relaxation: Sometimes, you just need to escape the hustle and bustle and reconnect with nature and yourself. Head out for a ride and focus on the rhythm of your pedalling, the feeling of the wind on your skin, and the sights and sounds around you. This mindful approach can help you de-stress and become present in the moment.

Group cycling for connection: If you’re feeling down and not sure why, joining a local cycling group or finding a friend to ride with might offer profound benefits. Social interaction and shared experiences can be a powerful antidote to loneliness and isolation.

Challenge yourself to boost confidence: When motivation and self-esteem wane, it might be the right time to set achievable goals and gradually push yourself further. Completing a challenging ride or reaching a new distance can be a powerful confidence booster.

Cycling for mental wellness: A powerful piece of the puzzle

Cycling offers a wealth of benefits for mental well-being. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that for individuals struggling with serious mental health challenges, cycling should be seen as a complementary strategy, not a standalone solution.

If you’re experiencing prolonged symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions, it’s crucial to seek professional help. This may involve therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Cycling can be a powerful tool to support your treatment plan, but it shouldn’t replace the guidance and support offered by qualified mental health professionals.

You can even discuss your cycling goals with your therapist or doctor to ensure they align with your treatment plan. Start gradually, listen to your body, and don’t hesitate to adjust your cycling routine as needed.

By integrating cycling into a comprehensive approach, you can harness its power to support your mental well-being journey. So, as the weather warms — embrace the spring sunshine, hop on your bike, and pedal your way to a happier and more balanced you.