Cycling and mental health
Cycling has long been recognised as an activity with excellent physical health benefits. If you’re cycling to lose weight, for instance, your body will continue to burn those troublesome calories for up to 30 minutes after you’ve stopped pedalling, and riding in short, quick bursts can burn more fat than if you ride for a longer period of time at a lower intensity, all the while building muscle strength throughout your body.
However, the benefits cycling provides to mental health have now also become the subject of focus.
A six-week pilot scheme has included mountain biking in a “therapeutic recovery programme” for those suffering from poor mental health. Ten participants from the Borders region of Scotland travelled to Glentress near Peebles to take part in the programme, and if the pilot proves successful, the scheme could be used elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
The programme was run in August and September 2018 by Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS) in collaboration with Scottish Borders Health and Social Care Partnership's Galashiels Resource Centre and Edinburgh Napier University.
Each of the participants were given a bike and led by qualified leaders and supporting volunteers on a two-hour ride through the internationally-renowned Glentress trails.
DMBinS project manager Graeme McLean believed the pilot to be "amazing”, stating: "Every week we went away buzzing from enjoyment everyone was getting from the rides. We were keen to help this programme to happen by delivering the weekly sessions."
Mr McLean went on to explain that the group were seeking to find out if mountain biking could help an individual recover from mental health problems before considering whether or not to take the scheme elsewhere in the country.
The chief officer health and social integration leader for the partnership, Robert McCulloch-Graham, highlighted the great response from participants in the programme, calling it “hugely innovative.”
"It certainly seems to have been one of the best-attended programmes the partnership has delivered with staff reporting an exceptional response from everyone taking part," said Mr McCulloch-Graham.
"Not only did they find it useful to be able to work with participants in a real life setting, they were also able to observe some genuine progress being made in terms of personal resilience, self-efficacy, social skills and confidence.
"We look forward to seeing the project evaluation when that is available and what potential there might be for the initiative to be available elsewhere in Scotland in the future."
Cycling has already been proven to reduce stress by improving our moods and helping us cope better with the effects produced by stress and anxiety. Getting out on two wheels boosts levels of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine in the blood stream, creating that “feel-good” factor.
In addition, cycling can also help to improve your sleep quality, with studies showing that insomnia sufferers experienced improved sleep after cycling for between 20-30 minutes every other day. It also helps increase the rate at which your cardiovascular system can pump oxygen around your body, and helps tone your legs and glutes without damaging your joints in the way that running can.
The Glentress pilot scheme will be evaluated by Tony Westbury, sports psychologist of Edinburgh Napier University and the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland before a national push is considered.
Mr Westbury said: "We think this is a fantastic programme and through our observations we can see that the participants really enjoyed mountain biking and the experience provided by DMBinS."
He went on to say that he intended to study the programme’s impact in order to determine whether or not it could be "developed, improved and escalated into the future" as a nationwide initiative.
Multiple studies have concluded that around two and a half hours of cycling each week is sufficient to gradually improve your fitness, with short rides to work and longer weekend cycles a great step towards making cycling a habitual part of your routine.
Cycling has plenty of obvious physical health benefits, but its impact on the health of our minds is often a grossly-overlooked aspect of the activity – organisers of the Glentress pilot scheme will hope that their findings encourage others suffering from mental health issues to take up cycling throughout Scotland and beyond.