Cycling to Beat the Blues, Guest post by Evelyn Pearce

Rob the moment, Flickr Creative Commons

Rob the moment, Flickr Creative Commons

Guest post by Evelyn Pearce

How do you feel after a good cycle? If you got on your bike not feeling your best, the chances are that when you get off the saddle you’ll be feeling brighter, more positive and ready to face whatever the rest of the day has to throw at you. It’s no coincidence you feel this way, as regular outdoor exercise such as cycling can do wonders for our mental well-being. Not only does this sort of activity trigger favorable changes within the brain, but it brings about other conditions that work towards boosting how we feel.

The effects of activity on our brain

Even though all our modern needs are met within easy reach, go back in time and we were reliant on getting about under our own steam to find essentials such as food, water and shelter. For the survival of the human species, it was vital that exercise was enjoyable.  For this reason, systems developed within our brain so activity produced pleasurable feelings, reinforcing the desire to stay active. While the necessity of exercise for our basic needs might now be redundant, the same systems are still at work, producing that feel good sense when you cycle.

There are a number of changes that occur in the brain on activity. Firstly, endorphins are released. These chemical messengers bind to the same areas of the brain that are activated when someone takes morphine or heroin, which triggers feelings of euphoria, giving us a natural high; how great this feels depends on the intensity and duration of the activity. Two other messengers are also released in the brain when we exercise, namely dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for feelings of calm and well-being. Another group of substances that occur naturally in the body called brain derived neurotrophic factors are also activated by exercise and these play a role in helping new brain cells to develop and nerves to make connections with each other. However, besides the chemical changes that occur in the brain, the increase in blood flow that occurs when muscles are used also appears to play a role in boosting mood. When more blood flows through the brain, a chain of events occurs and certain areas of the brain that are linked to mood and motivation are stimulated.

Aside from the changes that occur within the body, how else can cycling help to lift mood?

Other mood enhancing effects of cycling

Cycling is a great way to get you out and about, so not only do you get to explore your surroundings, but you have the opportunity to meet people. Humans are social beings and social interaction is good for mental health; having regular contact with others doesn’t just help to keep us in good spirits, but can help to bring up mood when feeling low. If you are perhaps nervous to cycle by yourself, go out with a friend or family member; some areas even have cycling groups, which are aimed at encouraging physical activity, so are perfect if you’re new to cycling. Meeting new people through a cycling group is a good way to increase your confidence, which can sometimes take a battering if you feel anxious or depressed.

Outdoor activity is well documented as a mood enhancer. Being in green spaces does wonders for how you feel. Whether cycling through a nature park, woodland trail or just along a country lane, nature’s tranquility can help you to relax, which can certainly help you to feel brighter; additionally, the color green is well-known for its calming effect. Interestingly, research shows that the benefits on mood are even greater if there is water in the environment where you are, so if there’s a trail around a lake or by a river near you, why not cycle it more often?

When we’re out on our bike, we’re concentrating on the road or taking in the view on a traffic-free route. This means cycling is a good way to take our mind off other thoughts. Life is hectic and with the stresses and strains it brings, this can sometimes get us all down. However, having an activity we can escape to when things get too much is very positive and cycling is ideal for this, as we can simply get our bike out the garage and take off for an hour. Whether we’re feeling upset, angry or frustrated, we can peddle these feelings away; it’s certainly more positive than turning to alcohol, drugs or comfort eating.

Equally, sometimes we have all felt like everything is getting too much. Taking part in exercise such as cycling can be the first step to helping you get back in control of aspects of your life. Deciding to make a positive choices towards healthier lifestyle, setting yourself realistic goals – whether it’s building up to cycle a certain distance, tackling up-hill cycling or working towards a weekend cycling break – and achieving these can provide you with a sense of achievement and boost your self-esteem. Looking back at the progress you have made will inspire and motivate you to tackle other things that you might consider as a challenge or problem in your life. Not only this, but feeling more positive and sleeping better, which cycling helps you to achieve, will make it easier to tackle the challenges you face.

Exercise and facing addiction

On that note, many people don’t realize that taking part in exercise can help when they’re overcoming addictions. Anyone who is giving up cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or an activity that they have become dependent on is bound to experience cravings for their old habits. However, when these strike, taking to the saddle and the good feelings that this brings with it can help to overcome the desire to take part in unhealthy behaviors. While in an ideal world people wouldn’t turn to the likes of drugs in the first place, now’s not the time to judge, as addiction and dependence can have destructive impacts on people’s lives. For instance, the growing trend of abusing one of the drugs used to treat ADHD not only leads to amphetamine and dextroamphetamine dependence symptoms, which include anxiety, insomnia, digestive upset and weight loss, but interferes with family and social life, as well as performance in school, college and the workplace. A close friend went through this with one of her children and it was devastating to watch. Helping people to escape the hold of drugs like these isn’t easy, but with treatment that takes a holistic approach, in which exercise can play a role, they can regain control of their lives. Whatever the addiction, I’m a firm believer that natural treatments play just as important a role as anything that can be prescribed and would encourage anyone in that situation to try an outdoor pursuit such as cycling as an adjunct to their other therapy.

Receiving the benefits

Exercising regularly is known to be as effective for treating mild depression as medical or psychological treatments. Should this apply to you or you simply want to prevent such problems, how much cycling would you need to do? If you’re able to take the 150 minutes of recommended activity each week, you will be able to set yourself up for good mental health; even better if you can manage more than this. As you can start to receive benefits for your mood after just 5 minutes of outdoor activity, even short bursts of cycling will help. That means if you begin by taking the 10 minute cycle ride to the shops or a friend’s house, you’re off to a good start. Remember it’s best to start off small and build up; this way it’s easier to regularly take exercise even when you don’t feel like it, which are actually the times when you benefit from it the most.

“Evelyn Pearce is a freelance writer and mother of two. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, she first went to Paris to study French, failed, then went to England to do art history and photography. While love and kids got in the way of that, she retained an interest and has slowly begun to write on many subjects, but her favourite ones are always about art. Someday she hopes to take up photography again, well, beyond baby photos that is.”