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Bicycling and Mental Health

May is both Bike Month and Mental Illness Awareness Month. Coincidence? Probably, but there’s some good stuff out there about the connection between biking and mental health.

Consider: the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in 4 American adults lives with a diagnosable, treatable mental illness. Twenty-five percent! Whether you know it or not, someone you know is struggling with mental health. These illnesses include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and attention disorders.

Aerobic exercise (like biking) promotes mental health as well as physical health. Here are some results from studies cited by Bikes Belong:
– Aerobic exercise can improve self-esteem
– Aerobic exercise can have an antidepressant effect
– One study found that cycling improves levels of well-being, self-confidence, and tolerance to stress while reducing tiredness, difficulties with sleep and a range of medical symptoms
– a 30+ minute round trip bicycle commute is associated with better mental health in men (somebody had better be funding a study to figure out the gender differential here!)

So there’s real science to support what I’ve noticed in my life – that I’m a happier, more pleasant person when I bike. I feel less stressed out, and whatever my boss did or said has usually been forgotten by the time I’m home after a half hour bike commute. This is not the case in the rare instances I drive and sit in traffic.

I started thinking about all of this after reading the story Riding is My Ritalin in Bicycling Magazine, found while surfing the internet looking for mental health information. Someone I was close to had recently committed suicide, and I was thinking a lot about the stigma of mental illness and lack of resources for people suffering from it in the U.S. I do not consider biking to be a substitute for professional help, but for many people, biking is part of taking active steps to maintain a healthy mind.

Other people writing about the connections between bicycles and mentally healthy lifestyles:
– the Washington Post reports on a study that gives mental health patients free access to D.C.’s public bike share program.
– Reporting by The Independent in the UK reveals that the positive mental benefits of cycling were noted as early as 1896.
–  Vermont Public Radio notes that two psychotherapists are promoting winter biking for mental health. (As a Minnesotan, my personal experience is that it helps prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder).
– A writer for the New York Times’ series on anxiety describes city riding as a brief break from constant, crippling anxiety.

Lots of individuals are also sharing their own stories, from a Boston Psychologist to a New York Commuter battling depression.

It seems like researchers are a long way from really understanding the relationship between brain chemistry and specific types of physical activity. I hope this area of study continues to receive funding.

What have you done to maintain your mental health today?


One comment on “Bicycling and Mental Health

  1. Interestingly, as part of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) it is recommended that when you notice habitual/negative thoughts arising that you move away from them and treat yourself to something you enjoy. For many that will indeed be cycling or another sporting activity. I don’t believe it’s just an adrenaline thing, I think it’s like a mini reboot – all of a sudden your sense inputs are rebooted – and consequently your thought patters could be as well, I also believe group rides serve an even bigger purpose, you can only be social when you are out on a fun ride with a bunch of fun riders, no matter how you were feeling before hand.

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