Why does riding a bike make us feel so good?
Cycling has always made me happy. I can’t remember much about my first bike, but getting the second, a shiny silver and red BMX wonder, which arrived one Christmas, was easily the highlight of my childhood. I rode the whole time with friends after school and in the holidays. And it was always sunny. OK, that last part might not be true but it’s difficult for my brain to generate a negative cycling memory.
Even big time crashes get reworked with a rose-coloured tint. So the time I was zooming down a hill with my feet resting on my back wheel nuts, like Superman, until I went splat, makes me smile and not wince as I think of how good I felt before I fell. And the time I tried to kick a stick out of my front wheel while going along but ended up getting my foot stuck in the spokes and somersaulting along the road, makes me shake my head and laugh at how long I held on.
I cycled at university. I’ve commuted by bike through countless crowded London rush hours. And I hire bikes to sightsee on most holidays. Last Christmas I even rode through the snow up an Italian mountain. I cycled everyday while pregnant, then when my kids were toddlers I rode with them in a trailer and now, excitingly, they ride their own bikes. Cycling always makes my day better, but recently I’ve begun to wonder why that is.
Cycling and stress
The obvious answer is cycling boosts your mood in the same way all physical exercise makes you happy “by influencing the release and uptake of chemicals in your brain that make you feel good” according to the Mental Health Foundation UK. They cite a study, which shows that physical exercise makes you feel “more content, more awake and calmer” and the positive effect on mood was most pronounced if you were feeling especially low to start with.
The Mental Health Foundation names another study which shows that physical exercise can reduce stress and that physically fit people have a reduced stress response (44% of commuters). And they say exercise has been shown to boost self-esteem, reduce depression and anxiety, more effectively than medication, and alleviate and reduce the risk of dementia. While a study reported in the Harvard Business Review shows that the stress-reducing benefits of exercise can help you manage your work life balance by making you productive.
For children, Cycling UK cites studies which show that physical activity can “help them pay more attention in school” and that there’s a “positive relationship between physical activity, improved cognitive performance and academic achievement.” Cycling UK also quote studies which show exercise can make you feel and look younger plus live longer.
Cycling vs. other exercise
Cycling definitely feels like it’s good for my head. But then I also get a big buzz from running, once I’m home that is, for I first have to reluctantly drag myself out of the house in a way I never have to with cycling. But how else does cycling win over other forms of physical exercise?
When in major cities, such as London, the fact you can use cycling to commute is a huge factor. Two thirds of Londoners list public transport as the most stressful part of living in the capital. I have zero commute stress. Recently the iconic British folding bike brand Brompton teamed up with the Stress Management Society to show how commuters who cycled to work were 40 per cent less likely to be tense in the first hour of work than those who drove or took public transport.
A Brompton spokesperson said: “Not only can cycling through London often be quicker than taking public transport, it also puts the commute in your own hands. Cyclists are in control of their own journey and feeling in control, alongside the benefits of exercising will dramatically decrease the stress of a commute.”
Sam Jones, Campaigns Coordinator for Cycling UK, tells me:
“The ‘anecdata’ for cycling’s ability to make people happy is everywhere. You only have to ask someone who regularly commutes by bike, and they’ll gladly tell you how great it makes them feel in comparison to other forms of transport.” That’s true. For me cycling made living in a phenomenally hectic city such as London not just bearable but actually very pleasurable.
Some facts and figures about the positive effects of cycling:
Chris Bradley, a sports psychologist at Loughborough University tells me one clear benefit of cycling over other physical exercise, such as a gym workout, is that you do it outside. He says: “Research shows exercising outdoors makes us happier as we connect with nature and experience sunlight (sometimes in the UK that is!), plus we get more oxygen, all of which produce chemicals linked to happiness in the brain.”
And it’s exciting. Unlike swimming or running you have less restrictions on your speed, so you can experience the adrenaline of going fast and that can be quite addictive. Plus you get the emotional satisfaction of completing tough rides.
Bradley cites another benefit of cycling as “taking you away from the mundane nature of life.” He says: “Cycling provides a distraction. It can be dangerous in traffic so you need to concentrate, and unlike running on a treadmill, which can be dull and repetitive, you’re always mentally engaged whether that’s to climb up a hill or control your speed in traffic or battle the wind. It helps you stop thinking about normal life.”
Positive effects of cycling for mind and body
Research is increasingly showing that keeping fit while pregnant can make you less likely to experience problems in late pregnancy and labour. And though doctors often caution against sports in which you might fall and harm the baby, I found cycling during both my pregnancies a massive benefit to me physically and especially mentally, with the distraction it provided playing a massive part.
The journalist Simon Usborne wrote in the Independent: “The focus required to operate a bicycle, and for example, to negotiate a junction or jostle for space in a race, can be a powerful medicine.” He cites studies which linked cycling to improvements in ADHD, severe depression and Parkinson’s with scans showing “cycling has even been shown to change the structure of the brain.”
And Sam Jones at Cycling UK also drew my attention to an ongoing study in the USA which is specifically trialling the impact of cycling in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s, with initial reports appearing positive. The benefits of cycling to our physical fitness have long been documented but it now seems there is a growing body of evidence to support what all regular cyclists already instinctively know, that it’s good for the well-being of our minds too.
My 16-mile round commute across London was easily the most enjoyable part of my day. Then as now I loved the sensation of pedalling and freewheeling around the urban space. I also love how meditative that experience is; the way it forces you to be centred in the moment.
To paraphrase that famous English proponent of the bicycle HG Wells: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future mental health of the human race.”