Free-wheeling to free up your mind
NICE (the National Institute for health and Care Excellence in the UK) recognises that the physical health benefits of cycling include a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes. But it also points out that cycling has benefits for your brain and getting out on two wheels should help you feel less anxious about life… because you’re totally in control.
You’re independent. You can focus on anything you want to, and the freedom you get on two wheels gives you a very easy way to leave the stresses and strains of everyday life far, far behind you. Whether you’re biking with friends socially, out on the open road, off for a cycle-ride on your own – or even getting your head down in a gym – it’s a simple way to realise some great exercise for your mind, as well as for your body.
Why does cycling make us feel so good?
As part of the physical activity involved in cycling, your body increases its levels of endorphins – the ‘feel good’ chemicals that help lift the spirits and cheer us up. Unlike anti-depressant drugs, which may be artificial chemical stimulants, endorphins are released naturally – and if you’re getting a happy buzz from a half-an-hour cycle ride a couple of times a week, then that should help you boost your mood overall, over time.
What’s more, vitamin D (the ‘sunshine’ vitamin) is much easier for our bodies to absorb if we’re out and about on a bike, instead of cooped up indoors on a treadmill. And there’s generally agreed thinking that the right levels of vitamin D in your body can lessen the likelihood of experiencing depression too.
Is it official, biking makes you brighter? It could be…
If you’re still not sure, let the experts convince you. In 2012, researchers at the University of Illinois monitored the growth of the hippocampus in people taking part in a six-month activities’ trial (the hippocampus is what’s believed to be our centre of emotion and memory in the brain, and regulates all of our emotions).
After six months cycling, every day, the cyclists said they found it easier to focus and had an improved attention span – and they’d improved their memory and problem solving skills by 15 to 20 per cent. Better still, the same study showed that cycling could help to combat the loss of brain function we’d normally expect to see with aging; the cyclists' brains appeared to be two years ‘younger’ at the end of the trial, than other participants.
So if you want to relax, get back on your bike
It’s something we pick up relatively easily as youngsters – learning how to cycle – and it’s true, once you know how, you never forget. But if you’d like to try cycling more often as a way to chill out and relax … don’t make the exercise stressful for yourself. Take it easy. Make sure you’re comfortable on the bike, start with short rides and build up your fitness over a period of time.