Direct Line magazine

Why is cycling good for our mental health?

Updated on: 14 February 2022

Two people smiling as they ride their bikes together on a sunny day.

As we come to the end of a difficult couple of years, it’s more important than ever to look after our mental health. Luckily, there are lots of ways to help keep yourself in a good headspace, and cycling is right up there among the best. 

Let’s explore how strapping on a helmet and taking to the open road can have a hugely positive impact on your mental (and physical, for that matter) health. 

Exercise and endorphins

You’ve probably heard about the relationship between exercising and the release of endorphins. In case you haven’t, endorphins are the chemicals that your body releases when you’re active, triggering a physical response. In the case of exercise, the net result is a decrease in the level of pain you feel, as well as an exhilarating feeling of happiness. 

This release of endorphins can be really good for you. Something simple like a short bike ride can go a long way to improving your mood, while also boosting your physical health at the same time. That’s why developing a regular cycling routine is recommended by health professionals as a way to combat problems triggered by mental health issues. 

If you haven’t exercised in a while, cycling is a great place to start as it has a lower impact on your joints than running or lifting weights. Even so, you may be worried that your body won’t be able to handle your new active lifestyle. If it’s something you’re concerned about, it’s a good idea to get medical advice before you take up a new form of exercise, and keep the following in mind:

Pace yourself

When you’re new to something (and enjoy it) it’s natural to want to head out day after day and take advantage of every free moment you get. While this might work in the short term, it won’t be long before your body begins to feel really tired. If you get burnt out, it could put you off cycling for good. So, pace yourself. Choose certain days, times and distances, and stick to it.

Don’t push your body too far

If you start to feel yourself struggling, cut back on your cycling routine. Aches and pains are our body’s way of telling us we need to slow down a bit. Make sure to listen to those warnings, or you could find yourself picking up a long-term injury. Remember, you’ll build up stamina with regular, steady exercise, so be kind to yourself.

Find a schedule that works for you

Make sure whatever cycling routine you choose fits easily into your lifestyle. If you push out social activities and your favourite TV show in favour of your new fitness regime, you might start finding reasons to miss a session here and there. Pick a time of day that you can realistically stick to – some days you could take a longer ride, and others just a quick sprint – the more naturally it fits with your existing routine, the easier it’ll be to stick to.

Create an exercise goal

Having a goal can really help motivate you. It gives you a target to aim for, which means you not only get the kick of endorphins from exercising, but also a sense of achievement and purpose in what you’re doing. Make your goal realistic and achievable, then once you’ve hit it, there’s nothing to stop you creating a new one.

Spending time outside

Spending time in the great outdoors should never be underestimated, especially when it comes to your mental health. There are so many benefits to getting outside and breathing some fresh air into your lungs. For starters, it will:

Regulate your sleep

If you have trouble sleeping, spend more time outside during the day. Getting outside means your body’s natural production of melatonin will be suppressed. This is the chemical that controls drowsiness – something you don’t want to feel during the day if you want a good night’s sleep. Daylight regulates your body clock, which is the easiest way to get your sleep pattern back on track. 

Ease anxiety and depression

Just as the exercise element of cycling will produce endorphins, the part where you get outside enables your body to absorb higher levels of vitamin D and serotonin. These chemicals are proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Just a few minutes of exposure to natural daylight can really boost your mood – even in winter.

Lower stress

Studies have shown that cortisol levels (a chemical which greatly impacts how stressed we feel) decrease significantly if you spend anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes outside. This in turn improves how calm you feel, while also serving to lower blood pressure and regulate your heart rate. 

Mindfulness and stress reduction 

Mindfulness teaches us to be fully present in the moment, instead of rushing around with our heads full of stress and to-do lists. Cycling helps us to stay focused on the here and now, which can have a huge impact on stress levels. Here’s how:

A calming influence

Cycling naturally promotes the need to stay mindful and, as such, calm. You need to concentrate on the road ahead and be aware of what’s going on around you, while changing gears, peddling, braking and steering (not all at once). This level of attention to what’s happening right here, right now will help take your mind off anything that’s bothering you – even if it’s only while you’re on your bike.

A healthy high

Exercise such as cycling or running can create a natural feeling of euphoria. When you push yourself on a ride, you might find that you feel super-energised and positive, afterwards. A real buzz. This feeling can get quite addictive and is the most natural way to feel ‘high’. While stimulants like caffeine and sugar can mimic this effect and give you a boost, nothing beats the feeling you get from a great workout.

A social connection

Joining a cycling club – or even just getting on your bike and heading out with a few friends – is a great way to get your social fix. You’ll not only share an adventure, but, if you want to, you can stop for lunch and really make a day of it. It’s particularly important to keep friendships going since our social lives took a hit during the pandemic. Having close social bonds is proven to be one of the most important factors in battling depression

Useful links

If you’d like to find out more about cycling and its benefits, check out this list of resources for information:

Cycling UK

You can use Cycling UK to find people to cycle with, or events to take part in all across the country:

https://www.cyclinguk.org/events-listing

Samaritans

If you’re struggling with your mental health and would like to talk to someone, the Samaritans are here for you, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

https://www.samaritans.org/

Sustrans 

If you’re keen to find traffic-free paths that connect cities, towns and the countryside, check out the UK-wide National Cycle Network, run by Sustrans.

https://www.sustrans.org.uk/

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