Cycling, A Prescription for Happiness

How Cycling Reduces Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Riding a bike is an instant mood-enhancer. If you are a cyclist, you have likely experienced this phenomenon yourself. Perhaps you had a trying day at work, or you’ve had some challenges in your personal life, or maybe you’re just grumpy.  But jump on a bike, start pedaling, and within minutes you are feeling better. By the end of your ride, you are in a completely different mood than when you started. Your troubles now seem more manageable.  

Sure, we all know exercise is good for your mind, body, and soul, but I’m not talking about exercise, I am talking about CYCLING.  

I am often asked by non-cycling friends why I like riding so much.  Obviously anyone asking this question has not been enlightened...I’m so sorry my friend...And I can’t easily answer such an open-ended question with a cursory response.  It’s not like answering the question, “Why do you like cheesecake so much?” My response to their query is something like this. “You know when you see a dog with his head out the car window and the wind whipping his face, tongue hanging out, tail wagging? It’s something like that.”  

I’m not sure why I make this analogy using a dog instead of, say, a human on a roller coaster, but maybe it’s because you can easily see the happiness the dog feels and his reaction when you ask him, “Do you want to go for a ride?”  In a word, it’s the feeling of exhilaration.

But we know there is much more to the mood-enhancing properties of cycling and you’ll be happy to know, there is science to back up this claim!  Riding bikes is an excellent prescription for helping combat the symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Reduction in Cortisol Levels

High stress levels trigger the adrenal gland to release cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone.  Its purpose is to fuel the physiological “fight or flight” response, an instinctive response to a threatening situation that was very useful to our distant ancestors.  But the busy lifestyles of today are often accompanied by high stress levels which can lead to excessive amounts of cortisol. High cortisol levels can increase your risk of developing depression, among other things like weight gain, acne, muscle weakness, fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, high blood pressure, and headache. Regular exercise, particularly aerobic exercise like cycling, decreases the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream, reducing these symptoms.

Health Outcomes and The Great Outdoors

Cycling is an outdoor activity, and one that can keep you outdoors for hours.  This is an added benefit completely separate from the obvious health benefits of exercise alone.  You are not mindlessly repeating the same motion, staring straight ahead, on some stair machine or elliptical, surrounded by others who barely make eye contact with you, earbuds firmly affixed, for thirty minutes (because there’s a time limit...if that doesn’t cause stress, I don’t know what does).  

You are surrounded by the great outdoors, usually in a natural environment (although, for you city dwellers, this may not always be the case), breathing the outside air, adjusting to the climate, and basically “being” in the environment we evolved to exist within.

The health benefits of spending time outdoors are being examined more closely and the results are astounding.  To name a few, spending time outdoors reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.  It increases sleep duration. It reduces cortisol levels (remember that?). It improves both self-esteem and mood.

These benefits may even be boosted by spending time in the forest, making mountain biking an excellent method for combating depression.  Being outside just makes us happier. If you are a city dweller, I would encourage you to seek out green space for this activity, but certainly riding through the city streets is super fun too, and you are still outside, which is better than being inside.


It’s a No-Brainer

Cycling has a direct effect on our brains.   It increases production of new brain cells, slows down brain cell aging, and improves the flow of nutrients to the brain. It affects several key regions of the brain responsible for mood, behavior and happiness.  

A study in the Netherlands, where incidentally there are more bicycles than people, has shown that cycling increases the integrity of white matter in our brains.  White matter is the nerve fibers in our brains with their myelin sheaths that create tracts connecting different regions of grey matter to one another.  Bulk up your white matter and you improve these connections.  Such things as alcohol use, prolonged high blood pressure, and ongoing blood inflammation are linked to white matter disease.  A breakdown in white matter means a breakdown in the way we function in everyday life and can affect mental health. Conversely, increasing and strengthening white matter can strengthen these connections and improve cognitive thinking, enabling us to think more quickly and be “sharper.”  Have you ever found that you do your most creative thinking and ideas come more easily to you while you are pedaling? And that the more you ride, the better this thinking becomes?

Another brain structure improved by cycling, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a neurotrophin associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). A study among 33 subjects showed an increased concentration of this protein following a twelve week program of regular bicycle exercise. This study determined a strong correlation between the increase in BDNF and the increased strength in the lower-extremity extension test...I’m not a scientist, but I think this “test” is what we call “pedaling.”  Additionally, alterations in the expression of BDNF are associated with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

Neurotransmitters

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the body that is believed to help regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. People who are clinically depressed often have very low serotonin levels.  Cycling (well, exercise in general) increases levels of serotonin in your brain.  In fact, the more you exercise, the more serotonin is available in your system. Studies have shown that exercise is as effective, and sometimes even MORE effective, at increasing these levels than serotonin-enhancing drugs.  

Dopamine has many functions in the body, but it is often referred to as the “Molecule of happiness,” as it is the chemical that promotes feelings of pleasure, positive anticipation, and satisfaction.  It’s the neurotransmitter responsible for that feeling of accomplishment when you’ve reached a goal. It plays a big role in motivation and reward. Regular exercise raises baseline levels of dopamine by promoting the growth of new brain cell receptors.

Norepinephrine works like adrenaline to cause arousal of the nervous system, helping you stay alert and motivated. It plays an important role in intellect and developing social relationships.  Cycling stimulates the production of norepinephrine in your system, as does an increased exposure to sunlight.  Cycling therefore contributes doubly to the production of norepinephrine.

Community

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The benefits of surrounding yourself with like-minded, healthy people are obvious. Although there are many outlets for finding a peer group, there is something very special about a cycling community.  Maybe it’s because cycling is a challenging, high intensity sport that attracts healthy, disciplined individuals. People who ride are strong, driven, positive, and in my experience, friendly and supportive.  Perhaps it’s the diversity found in a cycling group, bringing people from all walks of life together to share a common interest, people you would not have otherwise had the pleasure to know, whose presence enrich our lives.  It could be the stimulating conversation (or maybe not so stimulating) and jovial exchange of stories among riders in a group, often spending hours together without ever running out of material. And maybe it’s just the fact that when you’re with a group, you’re not alone.  Your presence is welcome and you can feel it. It makes you feel good. And guess what? Positive social support helps boost serotonin...BOOM! In fact, “peer support reduces the symptoms of depression.”

Conclusion

The positive impact of cycling transcends the physical.  Not only do cyclists reap the rewards of regular cardiovascular exercise, they experience numerous mental health benefits as well. Cycling promotes feelings of accomplishment, motivation, reward, pleasure, satisfaction, and well-being. It provides a community and sense of identity to participants.

Come join our community, we’d love to have you.

Do you have a story to tell about how the positive effects of cycling helped improve your mood when you needed it the most? Does this article resonate with you?  We’d love to hear about it. Please provide a comment, or contact us with your story. And in the meantime, remember this: It’s not about the miles per hour, it’s about the smiles per hour :-).


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