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Ask the experts: How cycling can benefit your mental health

Maintaining a positive, mental wellbeing is one of the most important things to prioritise in our lives, as is our physical health through exercise and activity. This year’s World Mental Health Day, on Saturday 10 October, is the most important one yet. The months of lockdown and navigating our way through a pandemic have had a huge impact on us all, so understanding how we can improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle over the winter months is paramount.

This week, we speak to Dr. Mark Bellamy, former performance psychologist at UK Athletics about the role cycling can play in maintaining mental and physical health. 

Identifying the cause of poor mental wellbeing

According to Mind, mental health problems affect around one in four people in any given year. This can range from common problems, such as depression and anxiety, to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Dr. Mark Bellamy said: “When we consider poor mental health, a lot of us associate this with too much stress in our lives. So, when we look at some of the impacts of stress on us, against the mechanisms behind the restorative powers of exercise, then we see why ‘getting on your bike’ can be such a tonic.

“There can be multiple factors to stress and how this impacts the quality of your day to day life. A few examples include:

  • Feeling overloaded - having too much on and not enough capacity or time to manage everything
  • Disrupted sleep cycle
  • Lack of exercise due to limited free time
  • Less engaged socially, as limited time to enjoy doing things with friends and family
  • Having a lowered mood state, feeling irritable or lethargic
  • Incidences or events taking place that are out of one’s control

Whatever it might be that's making you feel stressed or anxious, it's really important to prioritise and allow time for exercise, and build this into your daily routine to boost your mood, and improve your self-esteem.

So why is exercise so important for enhancing your mental wellbeing

If you are reading this blog, you are probably aware of the many benefits associated with cycling and how your Wattbike can be your best friend. Dr. Mark Bellamy is going to tell us just how important cycling is and how you may want to tune your training programme to maximise the benefits.

“By simply making time for a Wattbike session or getting out on your bike, you are acknowledging that it is beneficial to take some time for yourself and do something that is both pleasurable (most of the time) and important to you.

“As you begin your cycle, your breathing will change. You will progress from breathing perhaps 12 litres of air a minute to around 60 litres per minute in light exercise and then as you begin to load, you may be breathing in and out anywhere from 100 to 200 litres per minute. So you are working your entire cardiovascular system, muscles and skeletal system.

“Your breathing will become deeper and you will begin to use more of your lungs. As you warm up and get into a rhythm, you may find that you reach almost a hypnotic state, where you are lost in the moment of what you are doing. Many of my clients will report that they cannot meditate, but in fact get a very similar result to meditation from being on a bike, running, swimming, rowing or hiking.

“As exercise progresses, you will be reducing the stress hormones in your system and you will also begin to release the feel-good hormones such as dopamine and endorphins. When you’re working hard on the Wattbike your focus is on your load, poise and technique, and so your attention is being drawn away from the stresses of everyday life and in fact are completely focused and involved in your exercise.

“As you progress with your training programme, you are laying down positive habits in your life, habits that provide evidence that you can develop high levels of fitness and in turn showing high levels of control and self-efficacy.”

How can a structured training programme benefit you?

“Following a structured programme can benefit all the important health markers such as  blood pressure, cardiovascular health, body composition, breathing, sleep and mood state. These factors all improve over a period of time and give us the stronger ability to physically deal with stress triggers.

“As you progress into your programme, the skills and knowledge that you acquire around self-monitoring, nutrition and understanding the relationship between load, rest and recovery can become increasingly relevant to your cycling development. More importantly, it looks after your mental, emotional and physical health.

There are many Wattbike training plans available to help you achieve your goals and the Wattbike Hub is a great tool to add variety to your training through various different challenges and workouts.

In a summarising point, Dr. Mark Bellamy says: “As with any activity, getting it right every time is not going to happen, there can be a tendency to do too much and rest too little when you get the bug for anything. Take the time to observe how you react to load, to time on the bike and make sure you pay as much attention to your recovery.”

Our wattbikers

JAMES GOLDING - ENDURANCE CYCLIST AND WORLD RECORD HOLDER

"Without cycling I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t process things in the way that I do. Riding a bike saved my life; it saved my life on numerous occasions, and its saved my relationship with my family and with my relationship with myself. I have been through some things that have led to mental health issues. I suffer with depression but I manage to control it, and I control it with riding a bike. Either way without turning my legs I wouldn’t be able to turn my head, riding a bike has saved my life"


DaVID BRADFORD - FITNESS EDITOR, CYCLING WEEKLY

"Because I have a degenerative sight condition, retinitis pigmentosa, I'm night-blind and it's not safe for me to ride outside after dark – so the onset of winter tends to be quite depressing. But that's massively alleviated this year, knowing I have a Wattbike in the shed, that I can jump on at any time of day in complete safety to get my mood-boosting Zwift race or workout fix."