Why Cycling is Perfect for Physical & Mental Health
In this article, I want to take a look at the way cycling can improve health and wellbeing. I will start by briefly covering the physical health benefits of cycling, before moving on to the less talked about but equally important mental health benefits of cycling.
Physical Health Benefits
First up, I want to look at some of the physical health benefits that you can get from cycling. Some of these are common to any form of exercise and probably will not come as a great surprise. However, what sets cycling apart from other forms of exercise, like running, is that you are using a machine to help you move. This has two huge benefits:
First, it means you can cover far more ground than you could cover on foot, which means you can explore much further by bike. You can also go much faster than by foot, which makes it more exciting!
The second benefit is that, unlike with running, cycling is far easier on your joints. While cycling, your knees are not put under the same strain that they are through running.
So, here are some of the main physical health benefits of cycling.
The first is that, like with any aerobic exercise, cycling is great for your cardiovascular health. The NHS recommend that we do at least 150 minutes of exercise a week to help keep your heart and lungs healthy and lower the risk of heart disease.
It is a fact that many modern jobs are quite sedentary and involve a lot of sitting. This has been shown to be really unhealthy. The major threats that come from a sedentary life are to your cardiovascular health. Cycling is a great remedy to this, especially as it can be built into many people’s commutes, allowing you to get exercise on the way to and from work, and undo a day’s worth of sitting.
Another great benefit of cycling is that it can be a real workout for a large selection of muscles. As well as the obvious fact that it improves the strength of your leg muslces, it has also been shown that cycling can be really beneficial for your lower back muscles, provided that you ride properly.
Again, if you work in a job that involves sitting at a desk for large amounts of time, working out your back muscles is really important to help avoid problems with your back caused by the muscles getting weak through underuse.
Reduced Risk of Diabetes
Closely related to the cardiovascular health benefits of cycling is the fact that it can help reduce the risk of diabetes. Like any aerobic exercise, cycling will help to avoid becoming overweight, which is a major contributory factor to the risk of developing diabetes. Furthermore, evidence seems to show that aerobic exercise helps develop your insulin sensitivity, which can also help prevent diabetes by making sure that insulin is still effective.
Reduced Exposure To Air Pollution
So far, the examples of the physical health benefits of cycling have been fairly predictable. However, this next benefit is a little more surprising: cycling to work can actually help reduce your exposure to air pollution.
This might seem crazy, as commuting by bike typically means joining the rush hour traffic and all its exhaust fumes. However, studies have suggested that the effects of air pollution are more pronounced for people sat inside cars than those who are outside. While this might seem a little counter intuitive, cars are enclosed boxes with limited ventilation, so the air pollution collects and settles. Whereas, if you are outside, the pollution has much more space to dissipate, so is less concentrated. So, cycling to work could actually save you from exposure to as much air pollution!
Also, in many places, commuter routes are designed so that cyclists are separate from the road, again getting cyclists further from air pollution caused by traffic. In fact, London introduced a scheme called Quietways, designed to help cyclists and pedestrians follow quieter, traffic routes on their commute. Again, these kinds of innovations allows cyclists to avoid air pollution.
Mental Health Benefits
So far, I have covered the physical health benefits of cycling. However, cycling also has the potential to radically improve mental health as well. This is a benefit of cycling that is often overlooked in favour of the physical health benefits. However, discussions around mental health are becoming a more and more prevalent part of public health, so it is a great time to take a look at the ways in which cycling can improve your mental wellbeing.
Like any form of exercise, cycling can be a great way to reduce stress. Stress is a natural part of our lives and can be the driving factor that helps us perform well in a difficult situation - like an important meeting. However, for many people the reality is that stress becomes a permanent presence in their life, which can be incredibly unhealthy. In modern life, stress can come from all angles, and it is really important that people find ways to help reduce this stress.
Studies have shown that physical activity helps to reduce stress. Cycling is no exception. In fact, cycling can be one of the best forms of exercise for reducing stress, because it is not as demanding as other forms of exercise. It is very easy to just pick up your bike and go for a ride if you need to clear your head, and if you use cycling to commute this can be a great way to de-stress after work.
Cycling as a commute can work as a great buffer between your work life and home life, allowing you to leave the stresses of the day behind on the saddle, so by the time you get home you are already feeling more relaxed.
Positivity And Reduced Chances Of Depression
Another huge benefit to your mental health that can come from cycling is that it reduces the chances of depression. Exercise has been shown to release a host of neurotransmitters (like seratonin) in your brain that are associated with a sense of happiness, accomplishment and satisfaction. This means that jumping in the saddle and going for a ride will help raise your mood if you are feeling a little down.
This is not to say that exercise is some silver bullet when it comes to depression. However, what is clear is that for many people cycling has the chance to make them feel happy, and that is perhaps the greatest reason of all to set off on a bike ride!
Something that is an overlooked part of mental health is confidence. Confidence can be quite brittle, I am sure we have all experienced setbacks that have left us lacking in confidence. Cycling can be a great remedy for these kinds of setbacks, and more generally it can help build confidence. Just imagine the sense of achievement that comes from finishing a longer ride or difficult hill climb. Not only does it increase your belief in yourself, but it also gives you resilience to push on and try new things.
Also, we live in an image conscious age. As sad as it is to say, lots of people do derive some sense of their self worth from how they look. This is another way in which cycling can help boost confidence, as it helps you develop a fit and healthy looking body.
Mindfulness has become a hot topic and a bit of a buzzword recently. Everyone and everything seems to be muscling in to claim that they promote mindfulness. Although often I think these claims can be a little overblown, I think cycling can make a really strong case for being a great way to practise mindfulness.
Essentially, mindfulness is the idea that it does us the world of good to pay attention to the present from time to time. Instead of constantly worrying about what we need to do and what we have just done, it is good to stop and focus for a moment on your present experience. Also, in a world dominated by screens that constantly draw our attention away from our own experience, it is important to refocus on yourself sometimes. The benefits of mindfulness are well documented (see for example the NHS’s take here).
Cycling can certainly help you achieve a mindful state. Cycling is one of those activities that is demanding enough that it will distract you from other thoughts, but is not so demanding that it completely dominates your thoughts. This is perfect for practising mindfulness, as you can just focus on the present: how it feels to pedal, the feeling of the wind on your face. Also, if you are riding outside of a city, presumably you can also enjoy the view, the smell of fresh air and the feeling of sunshine on your skin.
Also, for those who enjoy the more extreme cycling, like downhill riding or offroading, this can also be great. These kinds of cycling demand total focus and concentration, which means complete attention to the present and how you are riding your bike.
For more about mindfulness and cycling, check out this great article.
The Importance Of Having Fun
Finally, I want to look at something that is so often overlooked for more ‘serious’ points. Cycling is fun. Really fun. From the moment you first learned to ride a bike, I would bet that above and beyond any other reason, you keep coming back to your bike because you enjoy riding it.
While the importance of unstructured play and fun for children is quite well documented, it is often overlooked that adults too benefit mentally from fun. As we get older, we have more responsibilities and more things we have to take seriously. However, this should not mean you have to give up on fun altogether! Getting on a bike and going for a ride is a great way to reintroduce fun into your life. Not only does this help raise your mood, it also staves off boredom.
In this article, I have covered a whole host of ways in which cycling can improve your physical and mental health and wellbeing. Although I have broken it down into sections, it is important to realise the way in which each of these different sections effects every other one. The reason cycling is so great for you is that all these benefits work together in a holistic way: as you feel more physically fit, you will probably also more content. This in turn increases your motivation, which in turn helps you get even fitter!
If you want to get started on your cycling journey then check out our huge range of bike equipment and products.
The point is that an active lifestyle is a happy lifestyle, and cycling is so versatile, so accessible but also so challenging that is the perfect way to inject more exercise into your life.