Let’s face it, Mondays are always a struggle whichever way you look at it. However, one day is said to be the worst Monday of them all – Blue Monday.
The date was first coined by psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall and he described it as the saddest day of the year. In coming to this conclusion, he considered factors such as weather, time elapsed since Christmas and how long it takes people to break their New Year’s Resolutions.
This year, the dreaded day falls on Monday 21st January – but don’t feel glum, there may be a simple solution that’s been under our noses all along.
A survey by Cycleplan, which examined the health benefits people experienced after taking up cycling, has found three-quarters of cyclists noticed improvement in their mental health since getting on the saddle.
But why is cycling so beneficial to our mental health? To shed some light on this, here are nine mental health benefits of cycling that can help you beat those January blues.
Cycling is an excellent way to alleviate feelings and symptoms of anxiety. The primary reason for this is that exercise has some of the same effects as some anti-anxiety medications – cycling releases endorphins in your brain, which are your body’s natural painkiller. Endorphins are primarily released to prevent exercise from causing us pain, but they also play a crucial role in boosting our mood and relaxing our mind.
Even on the most stressful days, going cycling can suddenly make everything seem ok again. Although this is partly down to distracting yourself from the worries of everyday life, there’s more science to it than you might think.
Findings have pointed towards aerobic exercise such as cycling as having the greatest effect on reducing cortisol levels, leading to a reduction in the symptoms of stress.
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone – it prepares your body for a ‘fight or flight’ response during stressful situations. Having elevated levels of cortisol because of a stressful modern-day lifestyle can increase your risk of obesity, insomnia, heart disease, digestive problems and depression.
Paul Andrew has been cycling for over 30 years and has found cycling’s effect on his stress to be invaluable: “It’s managed my stress throughout my adult life. Whether it’s the death of family members, stressful employment, the breakdown of personal relationships … cycling has got me through a lot of difficult times.”
Fights against depression
A recent review of 26 years of scientific research by the University of Toronto has confirmed what many have long suspected – exercise not only treats, but also prevents, depression. In fact, researchers have estimated that an inactive adult who begins to exercise three times a week can cut their chances of depression by 19%.
While this study seems to support the theory that exercise can prevent depression, experts haven’t yet agreed as to why this is. We’ve already established that cycling helps reduce stress and anxiety – both of which can go hand-in-hand with depression.
Many researchers have also theorised that the link could be more indirect, in so far as cycling provides a distraction from worrying circumstances and encourages healthier habits.
A good practice of mindfulness
In 1885, just eleven years after the first modern bicycle was introduced to the road, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in an article for Scientific American:
‘When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.’
The experience he was referring to is what we know today as mindfulness. That is, the practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment. Cycling definitely encourages this – you don’t have to think about anything apart from pushing around the pedals, taking in the scenery and navigating the roads.
It’s no secret that having high self-esteem contributes to a healthy mind, and cycling is ideal for boosting self-esteem. The achievement of sticking to a cycling training programme or routine which allows you to enjoy a sense of gratification.
Furthermore, in a society that’s obsessed with how we look, self-image naturally affects our self-esteem. As you cycle and your fitness and appearance improve through weight loss and muscle tone, this will improve how you view yourself. After all, it’s nice to enjoy looking in the mirror!
Enjoying the great outdoors
Unless your discipline is in a velodrome, cycling is predominantly an outdoor sport. Exposure to nature has been proven to have a positive effect on mental health, independently from exercise. This further demonstrates that combining the two is a winning combo for mental well-being.
Plus, by cycling out in the sun you’ll get a healthy dose of Vitamin D, which can lessen depressive symptoms.
Most people end a long bike ride with a coffee or an invigorating shower. However, maybe you could sit down to write the next best-seller! Creative people have long been known to exercise to overcome a block, but it wasn’t clear if there was any evidence to support this or whether it was merely anecdotal evidence.
Many people believe this is because cycling improves mood, and so will naturally fuel creativity. However, a recent UK study found aerobic exercises such as cycling enhances creativity independently of mood – so you’d better break out the painting set!
Prevents cognitive decline
It’s an unfortunate reality that, as we age, our brains slow down. As ageing and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s attack brain cells we can lose some of our important brain functions, including long-term memory.
The system of the brain responsible for long-term memory is the hippocampus, which plays a major role in things like remembering past experiences, facts and events.
It’s not all doom and gloom though – it was recently discovered that exercise counteracts our declining hippocampal function as we age and even in Alzheimer’s disease!
A better social life
It turns out that cycling can even improve your social life! Whether you’re part of a cycling club or have a circle of friends who cycle, coming together with people who have the same passion as you is hard to beat.
The benefits to this are much more extensive than having something to do at the weekend. Regular socialising with like-minded people has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, increase memory and recall, and even reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes! What better excuse do you need for a good old cycle and catch-up?
To find out more about the mental and physical health benefits of cycling, visit Cycleplan’s interactive site ‘The Health Benefits of Cycling’.
This guest post was contributed by Becky Devitt: Cycleplan’s blog editor and cycling enthusiast