Pedaling Away From Anxiety: Cycling and Mental Health

 

May is mental health awareness month. In recent years, psychologists and mental health professionals around the world have recognized the extraordinary benefits of physical exercise in beautiful, natural spaces. This is a terrific advance in the treatment of mental health issues, but it's also one many of us have known for many years. With that in mind, please enjoy this story from our archive, it's been one of our most popular stories for years. - Ed. 

 

A Scottish research group composed of a bike org called Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland, the Scottish Borders Health and Social Care Partnership’s Galashiels Resource Center, and Edinburgh Napier University, studied the positive mental health benefits of mountain biking a few years ago. The results on the had researchers and cycling advocates feeling pretty optimistic: Participants were been “buzzing from enjoyment” after their rides, exactly what you’d hope for with mental health therapy.

And I would know, I’ve been self-medicating with mountain bikes for a while now.

“It certainly seems to have been one of the best-attended programs the partnership has delivered with staff reporting an exceptional response from everyone taking part,” said Robert McCulloch-Graham, the partnership’s chief of health and social integration.

Each week, riders in the study were given mountain bikes and sent out on two-hour rides through the Glentress trail system near Peebles, Scotland, about 20 miles south of Edinburgh. It was hoped the unique combination of being outside, exercising, overcoming difficulties on the trail, and learning new skills that mountain biking can provide would show immediate positive benefits to participants suffering from mental health issues.

“Not only did [health care workers] 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,” said McCulloch-Graham.

The author's dropper post-equipped therapist's couch. Photo: Colin True

 “We think this is a fantastic program and through our observations we can see that the participants really enjoyed mountain biking and the experience,” said Edinburgh Napier University sports psychologist Tony Westbury.

The hope is to quantify the specific benefits the pilot program provided, then use that information to build mountain biking for mental health programs throughout Scotland. Scottish doctors have been open to the idea of getting outside for health and well-being for some time now, with Shetlands Islands doctors prescribing hiking, or “nature prescriptions” for all sorts of health issues.

Purely from an anecdotal perspective, this makes perfect sense to me. Mountain biking has proved to be something of a lifeline in my own struggles with mental health issues.

Mountain biking became an integral part of my outdoor activity toolkit last year. Almost immediately, I started to see the bike as a salve for nagging anxiety issues I’ve struggled with since childhood.

For years, I’ve relied mostly on a combination of talk therapy, meditation, and working out in a gym to quiet the hamster wheel of an anxious mind spinning out of control. Surfing, something my life has revolved around for the better part of 25 years, can often serve to enhance anxiety, paradoxically. Too many variables out of my control—swell size, winds, tides, sandbars—often means scrambling to surf when all those hoops align with a free couple of hours to easily be jumped through. Missing waves provoked anxiety. Missing work to surf did the same.

For that hour or two, I’m not worried about anything. Not money, not climate change, not work stresses, not existential crises about choices made, not anxiety about anxiety itself. Nothing.

 

Initially, I took to dirt riding because it looked fun as hell, and I like doing things that are fun as hell. I gave no thought whatsover to any positive developments for my mental health. But it wasn’t long, seriously, like three rides, before it became a daily must for me to swing a leg over the saddle and bomb down a singletrack somewhere, because it helped slow down my racing thoughts, and gave me something positive to look forward to at the end of the day.  A bit of scheduled adventure time.

Fortunately, I live in Marin County, California, and its wonderland of redwood-lined trails and fireroads, most with stunning views of the wild Pacific ocean, or cascading waterfalls, or both. Each afternoon I can show up at a favored trailhead and, unless it’s pouring down trail-wrecking rain, ride until I’m a sweaty, grinning mess.

For that hour or two, I’m not worried about anything. Not money, not climate change, not my soon-to-be daughter (ed. note, she's now 5 and has a 2.5-year-old sister), not work stresses, not existential crises about choices made, not anxiety about anxiety itself. Nothing. I’m focusing on hammering the pedals to climb a nasty grade, flying over a rock garden as fast as I can, zooming through trees like I’m riding a speederbike on Endor, dodging Ewoks and Scout Troopers, the wind whistling, echoes of my shouted hoots lingering in the trees.

When I finally glide back to the trailhead, muddy, sometimes bloody, totally physically spent, my brain is pumping with endorphins and I wouldn’t have the energy to feel anxiety even if a mountain lion leapt at me from the bushes. It’s the closest I ever come to zen—while awake anyway.

There’s a unique combination of fun and exhaustion in mountain biking that I haven’t found in any other activity. Trail running would seem to be a close cousin to singletrack riding, but it misses out on the visceral, grin-inducing, yew-generating thrill I get from mountain biking. Running is fun when you finish—I’m having fun on a bike from the moment my feet hit the pedals. At this point, I’m not even sure what I’d do without that dose of feel good at the end of the day.

Right on, Scottish doctors and sports psychologists. You’re on the right (single) track.

Words by Justin Housman

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