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How cycling can help overcome depression

In-depth
26 Jun 2020
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It has been a strange few months, with the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. A lot of the things we once took for granted were suddenly taken from us like a rug being pulled beneath our feet.

Life may feel like it is returning to a sense of normality but we are a long way off what we had before. In fact, there's no doubt we're going to have to settle for a very 'new normal' for the foreseeable future, one involving reduced human contact and less freedom to go where we want and when we want.

And the idea of experiencing the 'coronacoaster' is real. One day feeling like you've got everything together, the next feeling you are in a rut you cannot climb out of. Thankfully one of the best solutions in this testing time, we have found, has been to ride our bikes and here is how.

Words: Michael Donlevy Image: Juan Trujillo Andrades 

Depression is a very real illness – a struggle for the millions of people who live with it every day. Depression is also a particular problem among men.

Suicide is the biggest killer of British males under the age of 50, with 4,382 male suicides registered in the UK in 2017, compared to 1,439 for women. That means more than 80 men take their own lives every week in the UK.

‘Young men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide, whereas girls are more likely to self harm,’ says Dr Gemma Trainor, a lecturer at King’s College London and consultant nurse who’s spent more than 30 years working with young people battling mental health problems.

‘And there’s a growing problem among men aged 40 to 50,’ she adds. ‘Maybe their wives have lost interest, their children have grown up and left home, and they feel as if they’ve gone as far as they can in their careers. Depression is a big risk factor.’

Thankfully, cycling can help – whether you’re male or female, old or young.

The science of depression

In a raft of studies, exercise has been shown to have several effects on the brain. It leads to the release of neurotransmitters that alleviate pain, both physical and mental.

Depression is related to low levels of neurotransmitters such as seratonin and norepinephrine, both of which can be stimulated by exercise.

Also important are endorphins, chemicals released by the pituitary gland in response to stress or pain, which inhibit pain and promote feelings of euphoria in the brain.

Another side effect of exercise is a process called neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls learning and memory.

At a cellular level, it is possible that the mild stress caused by exercise stimulates an influx of calcium, which promotes neurogenesis. This process is believed to help depression.

Cycling, therefore, can help fight the chemical imbalances that cause depression, a serious illness that can result in low mood, feelings of helplessness, self harm and even suicide. But there’s even more to it than that.

‘Depression can manifest itself in physical ways,’ says Trainor. 'You can suffer loss of energy, headaches, agitation or anxiety, and nutrition often suffers.

‘There are also cognitive changes – loss of concentration, focus and confidence. Exercise can challenge all of these.

‘Research has found that in cases of mild or moderate depression exercise is at least as effective as, if not more useful than, medication.

‘It’s in severe cases of depression that medication may be required, day to day. But cycling can give you a sense of purpose and allow you to take control of your life.’

How cycling can help

‘Cycling gets you out and into nature, and there are proven benefits of this for mental health, even if you do as little as go for a walk,’ says coach Will Newton.

‘Cycling also puts you into a meditative state without you having to make a conscious decision to sit down and meditate. It’s rhythmic, but you need enough focus on what you’re doing to block out your worries.

‘You can’t think too deeply about your problems when you’re trying to ride in a straight line and avoid traffic, or making sure you maintain a pace that isn’t too hard or too easy.

‘You might notice a thought, but you can’t focus too hard on paying the mortgage before you have to react to the next set of traffic lights.’

The key for beginners is not to overdo it. ‘If you’re unfit, even cycling slowly is intense,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton.

‘Unfit people tend to start at a high intensity and don’t enjoy it. Intense exercise associates with the brain sending a signal that says, “Careful, we can’t keep this up,” and that message comes in the form of negative emotions: feeling miserable, sad and tired.’

Let’s go back to those endorphins, which are responsible for giving people a mental boost known as the ‘runner’s high’.

Running – for reasons that are not yet fully understood – appears to give the greatest benefit in terms of those feelgood chemicals, yet that doesn’t mean cycling is a waste of time. In fact, it may be better than running for beginners.

‘Running may be more beneficial, and I always say that everyone should run,’ says Newton. ‘But not everyone should run now. If you’re out of shape or two stone overweight, running is not something you should do.

‘Cycling allows you to get out there for longer, at a more manageable pace, so you get the physical and mental benefits without such a great injury risk.

‘Moderately intense exercise – of any kind – associates with positive mood,’ says Lane. ‘But once you reach a certain level, doing intervals or completing a hard session can bring a tremendous sense of achievement.

‘Overcoming doubts and fears that you can’t cope builds resilience, and this can raise self-esteem.’

It can also take time. ‘High-intensity work needs to be part of a long-term plan,’ says Newton. ‘There’s a positive aspect to hitting targets and seeing yourself improve, and you do get an acute benefit from high-intensity exercise.

‘There’s a greater release of endorphins so the euphoria is greater – the short-term benefit is a bigger kick from doing something hard. But there’s a downside: you’re significantly more likely to get injured, which will stop you doing something you’ve just realised you love doing.

‘There’s no point cycling to beat depression if you go too hard, can’t train and get more depressed. High-intensity work is for speed, and you need to have an endurance base first. Speedwork is a condiment, like seasoning, and you don’t need much of it.’

Kit yourself out

The benefits of cycling extend beyond the chemical reactions in your brain. It can help change bad habits and give a sense of achievement.

‘Sticking to a training programme is a form of exercising self-control, and self-control is a variable linked with a number positive attributes,’ says Lane.

‘Good self-control helps diet management, job success, sticking to timetables and so on. Poor self-control is associated with a large number of societal problems such as anger and violence.’ 

‘There’s a positive effect from identifying with something bigger than yourself, which in this case may be wearing GB or Team Ineos kit,’ says Newton.

‘And cycling can be an investment, in terms of both time and money. For some people cleaning a bike is a hassle, but for others it’s another meditative process you can get lost in. It’s something else to focus on, and there can be pride in maintaining your bike.

‘Likewise, some people buy cheap kit without thinking about it, while others really invest in it. Why not reward yourself? Buy yourself a new gilet or a new set of wheels if you hit that target. Do whatever you need to do if it helps you.’

There’s just one word of warning: if you’re taking medication, don’t bin it simply because you’ve bought a bike. You should never come off medication without talking to your GP first.

‘Depression is complex,’ says Lane. ‘The causal link between exercise and mental health is not completely established. ‘Exercise has shown very positive effects on changing mood, but whether it works in the same way as medicine is not clear.’