We’ve already talked about here and on the CyclingQuestions YouTube channel about how beneficial cycling is in reducing and eliminating physical tension. We discussed how a good deal of non-trauma physical tension can be precipitated by, or exacerbated by psychological stress, the kind many of us are under day-to-day. But hello, Dear Reader and welcome back to the fourth and last part of this exploration of the benefits of cycling! It’s wonderful to have you here again 🙂 So for me it’s another of the great benefits I’ve noticed having crossed the over-50 boundary, and that’s the ability cycling has to induce a nice mental balance and to allow a space in which to gain a wee bit of mental clarity and perspective from psychological stress; from the kind of stress generated from depression and anxiety-related conditions. If you’re a cyclist maybe you’ve allowed your self the kind of rides where you’d notice that. Maybe you’ve been too head-down, full-gas, max-power to notice haha #kidding 😀 But let’s check out how cycling works to our benefit in these common situations.
How can cycling help with depression and anxiety?
I’ve spoken here before about cycling as a means to rid your self of depression more specifically, I’ve related that on one of the CyclingQuestions YouTube videos to cycling as a form of behavioural activation as part of a clinical protocol for depression. More recently, I’ve discussed in Part 2 of this series how cycling can afford us that sense of physical calm and this is a positive means of addressing the symptoms of anxiety by reducing tension and stress, possibly anger and frustration too, as well as by providing us with a sense of achievement (remember the modest goals from our previous articles!) and a more healthy, perhaps balanced, outlook on our current situation.
What’s specifically beneficial about cycling for depression or anxiety?
In many cases, the evidence cited for cycling as being beneficial in treating depression and/or anxiety comes from a more general exercise is an ameliorating factor in both depression and anxiety-related conditions, and cycling can be taken as a subset of that. The reasons cited in the above article are that exercise can help due to the release of our “feelgood” chemical endorphins which enhance overall wellbeing as well as suggesting exercise can take our minds off our worries, permitting social interaction and enabling functional coping – functional as opposed to the kinds of dysfunctional coping many folk might engage in, for example alcohol.
That’s all great for the cyclist. However, I’d take it further though and specify cycling over some other activities because I feel it can offer a greater buffer between oneself and one’s thoughts. More specifically than thoughts, ruminations. Ruminating being that chewing over the same issue with the same patterns of automatic negative thinking that arise out of our negative core-beliefs and concomitant view of the world and others therein. That’s my experience both as a counsellor and a cyclist. Anecdotal, I don’t know for sure, that’s been my experience.
With some exercise activities, I feel it’s not possible to gain mental space in my head. For example playing football (soccer) wouldn’t, because it’s too full-on and requires an almost continuous focus on the activity. Walking certainly. Golf might offer that opportunity because of the walk – you are walking aren’t you? #nocartshere haha – yeah the walk up the fairway. You take my point 🙂 Cycling – if you use it for this purpose – can give you as much space as you need. Then again, if you’re going full gas on a hard interval session, that’s probably not the right ride for this purpose 🙂 Let’s look in turn at how cycling benefits those under the thumb of both of these conditions.
Cycling to help with depression
As with the previous part of this series, it turns out there isn’t so much specific data regarding cycling and depression. I think we can take it as read that the effects of exercise as being beneficial for depression are well documented, and as cycling is a subset of exercise, we cyclists get them benefits too! But I thought this little study from a while back on the effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood was nonetheless of interest as it cited cycling directly. Specifically it did so because… “The most improvements are caused by rhythmic, aerobic exercises, using of large muscle groups (jogging, swimming, cycling, walking), of moderate and low intensity.” So yay cycling 🙂
That little abstract succinctly states it. But cycling can change depression and mood states following the endorphin and monoamine hypotheses. What are these exactly? Well, the endorphin production you no doubt already know. Endorphins are peptides within the brain and body’s nervous system that activate opiate receptors. It’s this that causes the analgesic, calming, pleasant feeling we get from cycling and other exercises. The monoamines referred to are dopamine, seratonin and noradrenaline, each having beneficial effects when released through exercise. Studies are aplenty. As is information online 🙂 I just wanted to touch on the beneficial brain-enhancing changes that occur within us when we get on our bikes and go for a ride! 🙂 It’s all good. As I said in my article on cycling and depression, you just have to take the decision that you are going to get on that bike! #justonedecision 🙂 And if you’re in that position, Dear Reader, I send you my sincerest thoughts and wishes. I know you can do it!
How do these beneficial brain-enhancing changes from going cycling make us feel better emotionally?
I guess there’s always going to be a conflation of a physical feelgood with a mental feelgood. And so it should be! I’ve found that these changes as a result of cycling can provide us with a sense of purpose, success and satisfaction. The latter must be accompanied by the mindset of achievement. And that mindset must allow for the notion of achievement no matter how small that achievement is in context. I’ve outlined previously on video, but if you’re depressed, just taking a shower can be an effort. Therefore, if you’re able to make that decision to go out on your bike, your modest goal with that level of motivation ought to be something as simple as a ride around the block or to the end of your road and back without worrying about getting all dressed up etc. Now while all other things being equal, that might not seem like anything worthy of calling itself an achievement, specially if you’re a cyclist capable of more, still, in the context of depression for example, we really must allow ourselves to class that as an achievement. Because there’s no doubt in context it is!
Our neurochemistry assists us in tangibly engaging with this feelgood moment. It allows us even temporarily to feel happiness and that in turn can allow space for self-compassion which is often lacking completely in those oppressed by depression.
For me, another factor specific to cycling – which I outlined in my accompanying video for cycling and mental balance – is the space we get as cyclists. Cycling offers us an opportunity to put distance between us and our condition. Even just temporarily. It can be enough at times to show us that the world doesn’t begin and end at our perception of our own issues. It can give us a more balanced perspective on our issues, on our life as well! With depression, it’s particularly easy to lose context and find one’s self in a place of apparent hopelessness. As I said in the aforementioned article here on CyclingQuestions.com, all you gotta do is to take the one decision to get out on your bike. It won’t happen unless you do. But taking that one decision can pull you out of it. I’ve seen it many times as a counsellor 🙂
These effects from cycling can also give us a greater capacity to cope with both internal and external challenges and to build resilience against them. Beneficial to those with symptoms of depression, this is particularly relevant to dealing with anxiety-related conditions which we’ll see next.
Cycling to help with anxiety
With the typical symptoms of anxiety ranging from tightness in the chest and dyspnea, palpitations or pounding heart, arrhythmia or irregular heart rate, dizzy spells, trembling or nausea, it’s understandable that cycling – and exercise in general – is, in my experience as a counsellor, often overlooked by clients presenting with these symptoms. Exercise, brings about physical effects easily mistaken by someone beset by anxiety for those self-same symptoms.
Owing to precisely the same factors as mentioned in the section dealing with depression above, exercise, and cycling in particular can be particularly beneficial to someone displaying anxiety symptoms. While plainly cycling cannot address the root cause of the anxiety symptoms which are in my experience fear-based, it can still alleviate many of the symptoms themselves which is sometimes enough to break the vicious cycle of symptoms giving rise to fear over those symptoms and their implications (usually physical harm or even death from what’s mistakenly perceived by the client as coronary symptoms) giving rise to increased frequency or severity of those same symptoms. Cycling can halt that spiral.
So how does cycling help my anxiety symptoms?
There’s the monoamine neurochemicals we mentioned earlier: dopamine, seratonin and noradrenaline. These, very briefly for this article, have a mood-enhancing effect which can assist in countering the automatic negative thoughts (ANTs in a cognitive and behavioural modality of counselling terms).
What, like marijuana? #easyman
Yes, besides the above, exercise – specifically endurance exercise such as cycling – activates our internal endocannabinoid system. Yup, it’s the same agent found in marijuana! This naturally contributes too to reduced stress.
There’s another hypothesis on how cycling helps with anxiety and it’s a point I was trying on the latest vid about mental balance and perspective (but possibly failing haha) and that’s the distraction hypothesis. It’s the idea that cycling provides a respite, albeit temporary, from the iterative thoughts, worries and fears that precipitate the awful symptoms of anxiety. Cycling gives you that space as I mentioned earlier. It affords us a kind of buffer between us and not only our concerns, but given the right type of cycling – I’m thinking of a moderate to high level – also between us and our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) about those concerns. It’s with this buffer we can allow our selves a more balanced or more rational and realistic perspective. As with depression, it’s all too easy in the downward spiral of anxiety symptoms and fear around the consequences of those symptoms to lose perspective and to catastrophize our situation. This thinking can precipitate panic attacks, which are ephemeral and fleeting, but can, if unchecked become panic disorder, agoraphobia and myriad other anxiety-related conditions. Cycling, the distraction, the buffer it affords can circumvent this iterative negative thinking and can facilitate a clearer, more balanced perspective.
Interestingly this distraction hypothesis came from studies reporting similar beneficial effects from exercise activities and non-exercise activities such as meditation. However, the hypothesis is inconsistent with our proven findings on exercise. But nevertheless, the great thing is, as a cyclist we get the best of all benefits, both the distraction and the physical and brain-enhancing changes, right? So what’s the excuse?? 🙂
It’s been noted in studies too that cycling (exercise) should be performed usually a minimum of three times a week, and frequently in programs lasting 8-10 weeks and longer. For me, there’s an automatic implication we ought to be doing a cycling plan. Yes, but I don’t see enough research into the type of plan. You just have to look online to see the myriad plan options. I’ve even documented my own cycling plan to gain strength over winter on a singlespeed bike, and another cycling plan to burn belly fat and lose weight. The point here being that cycling plans tend to have specific goals. And so they should. However, if our goal is to lessen our depression or anxiety symptoms, then these plans are not necessarily geared to that goal. Makes sense, right? I have the very thing in the pipeline though. It should be finished soon and I’ll be posting here and on the CyclingQuestions YouTube channel, click to subscribe for all the vids 🙂
Here’s the vid that goes with this article. It was a nice morning, very cold, mid-wintery. An easy ride just enjoying the experience. Plus rambling haha. And chickens 🙂
I do sincerely wish you the best, Dear Reader if you are experiencing the effects of depression or anxiety-related conditions. Never be afraid to seek help whether that’s a trusted friend, family member or colleague, or your health practitioner. You deserve to be free of these conditions. In my experience on all sides, as a cyclist, as a counsellor of clients with these very common but nonetheless debilitating conditions, and as someone having experienced depression and anxiety at various times, I stand by the idea that cycling can help, like really help. You have my wishes and meantime, ride safe, allow your self to have fun and I’ll see you back here next time. Kindest, warmest regards to you, Dear Reader, David.