When we think about the health benefits of biking, most people are probably quick to jump to thinking about the physical benefits, such as weight management and cardiovascular health. But aside from maintaining physical health, bicycling is also an excellent (and cheap!) way for both kids and adults to take advantage of the connection between physical activity and mental health. In addition to offering the same rewards that most other forms of exercise do, bicycling offers a few that are unique—and which can have a big impact.
Exercise, including cycling, stimulates the release of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, which can help elevate your mood and make you feel more relaxed. Moreover, some types of low-intensity exercise can help your body to manage its levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). Both reduced stress levels and improved mood are great ways to help manage your mental health.
The benefits of cycling aren’t just restricted to positive changes in moods and feelings. As it turns out, the biological effects of bicycling also include better brain and cognitive function. Repetitive motion—such as pedaling—can improve connectivity in the brain’s white matter.
Regular bicycling and other forms of exercise also help to deliver more oxygen to the brain and increase levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps maintain and generate neurons.
In addition to helping with memory and cognitive performance in the short term, regular cycling has been connected with the preservation of brain function as people age, helping them to stay sharp for longer.
In general, one of the reasons that exercise is so beneficial for mental health is that it gets people out of their heads and into their bodies, thereby providing a welcome distraction from any stressors in their life and allowing them to approach negative feelings and thoughts a little more mindfully (and with the help of mood-boosting endorphins!).
In particular, the repetitive motion of cycling makes it easy enough to allow you to relax and zone out a little. Some people even point to the potential of using the repetitive, rhythmic aspect of cycling as an opportunity to engage in a moving meditation of sorts. However, cycling still requires just enough attention that it keeps you from dwelling on negative thoughts too much. Especially if you’re biking on trails or in a city environment, odds are that you’ll have to pay at least a little bit of attention to traffic or obstacles, which will make it hard to get stuck in negative thought patterns.
More so than many other forms of exercise, cycling presents great opportunities for spending time in nature and socializing, both of which can go a long way towards improving mental health. Even green spaces within urban environments can boost your mood and foster a sense of connection with the natural world. Similarly, going for a quick ride with a friend can help reduce loneliness, which research has associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression.
One 2016 study investigated the benefits of cycling by surveying the stress levels of adults in Spain who regularly commuted to work or other locations. They found that the commuters who used bicycles to reach their destinations had a significantly lower risk of being stressed than those who commuted by other means.
Another 2019 study examined the effects of an outdoor cycling program on study participants with mental illness. The researchers found that outdoor cycling, for the participants, produced feelings of personal mastery, solidarity, community, and healing sensory experiences (such as the feeling of fresh air and other natural sensations). Overall, they associated outdoor cycling with improved physical, mental, and social well-being.
Both adults and kids stand to improve their mental health through cycling. Research has shown that the uncertainty and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the mental health of children as well as adults. In these difficult times, bicycling is an excellent (and socially distant) way for kids to reduce stress levels and improve their emotional well-being. Further, teaching kids to bike at a young age is a great way to instill positive coping skills in them at a young age, thereby better equipping them to deal with mental health issues in the future.
Most experts agree that exercising for about 150 minutes each week (or 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) is sufficient to stay healthy. However, if that isn’t feasible for you at the moment, don’t be afraid to start smaller. Even a little bit of exercise is better than none, and some research suggests that as little as 15 minutes of exercise can be enough to boost your mood and improve your mental health.
All Kids Bike is a national movement dedicated to bringing the mental and physical benefits of bike riding to every kid in America. Led by the Strider Education Foundation, our mission is to make bicycling skills an integral part of kids’ elementary school education. Our Kindergarten PE Program provides the curriculum, bikes, and safety equipment needed to teach every kindergartner how to ride at no cost to the school itself. Contact us to learn more about how you can support our vision to make this milestone skill accessible to children, or consider donating to a school in your community.
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