I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until I started cycling that I experienced a feeling of momentary freedom. Normalcy, even.
Spinning my pedals pulls me out of my worst slumps. In fact, this is the whole impetus behind The PedalMind Project.
I wondered: does cycling deliver better relief from depression than other types of exercise? Or, could I experience the same by walking, bowling, or doing anything else that increases my heart rate?
I reached out to professionals for some answers. Here’s what I learned.
What is Depression?
FS: “Depression involves the persistent feeling of sadness, decreased or increased energy levels, or suicidal thoughts.”
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) explains that depression is a broad term for a serious—but treatable—medical illness that causes different emotional and physical symptoms. Depending on the patient, common ones include:
Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or guilt
A loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Appetite changes, including over or under-eating
Difficulty or excessive sleeping
Slowed movements or speech
Problems thinking or concentrating
Frequent suicidal or death-related thoughts
About 16 percent of people will experience depression at some point in their life, which can occur at any time.
Some will experience it only briefly and require little-to-no medical intervention, while it’s a life-long struggle that requires constant monitoring for others (yours truly, included).
If these symptoms sound familiar to you, your medical professionals might recommend a combination of different treatments that can help relieve your depression, such as medication, psychotherapy, and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Mental health professionals also place a great deal of importance on physical activity to address depression, including activities like cycling. But why is this the case?
How Does Cycling Help Your Body Battle Depression?
Just like cycling, depression is complicated and takes place on multiple fronts. Let’s quickly break down the different ways the sport can affect the condition.
Achievement, Retraining the Brain, & Social Involvement
Ryan Hale, licensed therapist, PhD candidate in positive neuropsychology, and personal trainer/studio cycling instructor at Estes Valley Community Center in Estes Valley, Colorado, explains that if you have depression, you’ve probably experienced many instances where the result of your effort didn’t seem worthwhile.
To counteract this, exercise “sends a message to ourselves that our effort is worth it,” he says. “In fact, research shows that of all the things we can do for ourselves, exercise is one of most consistently satisfactory.”
How does it work?
With repeated effort, we associate the sensations of cycling and exercise (e.g., an elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweating, increased respiration, etc.) with satisfaction, which helps retrain our brain. “It’s like we are creating a new normal for ourselves,” Ryan says.
Cycling with a group of cyclists also allows you to engage with others, further boosting your sense of satisfaction and keeping depression at bay. Ryan calls this “bumping into happiness.” – Need to create another graphic based on this.
“If we stay at home hiding under the covers, we have almost no chance of having fun,” he says. “But, when we say yes to activities with others, we may find ourselves meeting people and having a good time.”
Brain Chemicals Released During Cycling
FS: “Cycling releases multiple hormones that regulate pain, mood, sleep, hunger, and your pleasure response. It also flushes harmful chemicals like norepinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol.”
Stephanie Howe, Sports Nutrition & Exercise Physiologist at Howe Endurance in San Rafael, California, explains that when you exercise, your mood is naturally boosted “due to the release of several neurotransmitters in the brain that relate to pleasure.” These include:
Endorphins – Polypeptides created by the pituitary gland and central nervous system that minimize discomfort and pain while maximizing pleasure.
Serotonin – A chemical produced by nerve cells that plays a role in every part of your body’s functionality, including (among other things) mood stabilization, sleep, eating, and digestion.
Dopamine – This chemical plays a considerable role in how you feel pleasure, in addition to other critical functions like motivation, sleep, mood, attention, and pain processing.
Ryan adds that one chemical released during exercise, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), “has been called “miracle grow” because it actually increases our brain cell activity and creation.”
And it’s not just what cycling adds, either. Specifically, regular movement can also help your brain get rid of chemicals that can increase depressive episodes, including:
Norepinephrine – Also called noradrenaline, this hormone/neurotransmitter increases blood sugar, raises heart rate, narrows blood vessels, and increases blood pressure.
Adrenaline – triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response, contracts blood vessels, decreases pain, and heightens awareness. Too much can leave you feeling irritable.
Cortisol – Another fight-or-flight hormone that acts as a helpful ‘alarm system,’ but too much can cause heart disease, trouble sleeping, and anxiety and depression.
Consequently, Stephanie points out that “exercise and physical activity have been shown to have effects on the brain similar to that of antidepressants (1).”
Still, she emphasizes that while exercise can have a synergistic effect with antidepressants on the mind, it does not take the place of traditional treatment modalities for depression, anxiety, and other mood disturbances.
How Cycling Improves Your Brain
According to the Dana Foundation, exercise increases your heart rate, which pumps more blood—and the oxygen and other nutrients it contains—to your brain.
This additional support maximizes your brain’s ability to increase your feel-good chemicals, decreases ones that can cause stress, and strengthens connections between brain cells.
Not only does exercise in general and cycling, specifically, boost your immediate mood and reduce stress, but as you increase your mindfulness, you can also gain better control as anger or other strong emotions arise.
With improved blood flow to the brain also comes improved overall mental performance, specifically in areas like:
Better test scores in math and reading
Long and short-term memory
Increased learning capacity
Reduced ADHD symptoms in children
More mental energy during the day
Sounder sleep at night
Improved neuroplasticity (growth of new neuron connections)
Slowed cognitive decline
Prevention of cognitive function diseases, including Alzheimer’s
Better executive functioning (e.g., working memory, thinking flexibility, self-control, etc.)
Finally, cycling can be a great way to meet new people and stimulate your ‘social muscles,’ which can further benefit your mood and outlook on life.
Cycling’s Effect on Your Body
Cycling and other regular exercise don’t just benefit your mind. You’ll also experience a healthier heart, lower blood pressure, decreased risk of diabetes and certain cancers, improved muscle tone and strength, stronger bones, reduced body fat, and an overall healthier and fitter look.
Being outdoors more often will also give you an extra shot of vitamin D, which is absorbed through your skin and can further boost your mood.
Is Cycling Better for Depression Than Other Types of Exercise?
Ryan emphasizes that “in [virtually] every study completed, exercise is as effective as medication for mild-to-moderate depression.”
“In the same way that medication alone does not work as well as medication and talk therapy together, all interventions work the best when adding exercise,” Ryan explains.
Still, he points out that no one form of exercise is better than others for psychological issues.
With this said, he explains that some neurologists (specifically Stanford’s Dr. Andrew Huberman) have posited that “forward-moving” activities, such as cycling and running, automatically decrease anxiety since it causes the brain to act in opposition to its fight-or-flight response. “Based on this theory, I’d expect “forward-moving” activities to be good for anxiety,” Ryan concludes.
Furthermore, Stephanie adds that “the stimulation of being in nature and breathing in fresh air has intangible benefits that can also boost mood.”
Potential Cycling Advantages
In these regards, cycling does offer some potential advantages compared to other forms of movement and exercise, depending on your needs and preferences:
Efficiency – Your leg muscles are some of the biggest in your body, which means that they can efficiently crank the pedals and keep you moving with relatively little input.
Full-body workout – While cycling is leg-focused, you’ll use every major muscle group during rides, delivering an ideal full-body session.
Low-impact – While running burns more calories than cycling, it’s also much harder on your joints. Consequently, riding a bike can be ideal if you have joint pain, movement concerns, or are otherwise prone to overuse injuries.
Convenience & versatility – As long as you can get outside in nature (which is always more interesting than inside), you can ride your bike, even if it’s your first time in many years. Remember: you never forget!
Transportation – Similarly, when you ride your bike, you’re not just exercising—you’re actually going somewhere! This way, you can run errands while you get fit and reduce your depression.
Choose your intensity – Depending on your goals and physical condition, you can turn the dial-up or down when you want to hammer the pedals or just cruise.
How Can You Get Started with Cycling for Mental Health?
Stephanie recommends that the best way to start is to find the path of least resistance, which generally involves going for a walk or run. Start small, though. A short walk lasting 10-15 min is an excellent place to begin.
As you become more comfortable, she emphasizes the importance of increasing difficulty, which can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing. It also becomes incrementally easy to sustain injuries, so it’s always a good idea to seek the help of a professional before injuring yourself from overdoing it—especially if you’ve been sedentary for a long time.
Finally, going 100% as soon as you regain physical activity can also lead to burnout.
From a psychological standpoint, Ryan recommends making getting outside as easy as possible. For example, make sure your bike’s in good shape (shifts and brakes well, no squeaking, etc.) and that all your gear (helmet, shoes, shorts, jersey, etc.) is ready to go.
“If you have to [fix your bike] or get all of your cycling gear rounded up to get out the door for a ride, it won’t become a habit,” he explains.
Let’s carry this thought over to the next section.
How Can You Maximize Your Chances for Success with Cycling?
I fucking hate running, So, if I thought running was the only way to improve my physical and mental health, getting into shape would be a huge chore.
But because I’m over-the-moon about cycling, I look forward to my rides, thoroughly enjoy them as they occur, and reminisce about the hours after they’ve ended.
With this said, the best form of exercise—and the one most likely to address your depression—is the one you can stick with. Additional examples that might not immediately come to mind include:
Housework (especially sweeping, mopping, or vacuuming)
Yard work (especially mowing or raking)
Bottom line: If you want to get your body off the couch and improve your mental health, stick to whatever moves you.
What’s the Bottom Line About Cycling for Relief from Depression?
Stephanie emphasizes that while exercise is a tool that can be synergistic in the treatment of psychological disturbances, “it does not replace medications or therapy.” If you’re looking to maximize your wellness related to depression, it will likely take a combination of treatments.
Furthermore, Ryan points out that “many psych meds can affect heart rate or other functions, so make sure your exercise is compatible with your particular issue and/or medication.”
Along these same lines, while “we may not have access to our therapist every minute of every day, we can always lace up our shoes and go for a walk, jog,” or ride. “The rode never closes,” he says.
Just make sure that you speak with your therapist or psychiatrist about how cycling or other forms of exercise might impact your diagnosis before you head out the door!
1. Dinas PC, Koutedakis Y, Flouris AD. Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Ir J Med Sci. 2011 Jun;180(2):319-25. DOI: 10.1007/s11845-010-0633-9. Epub 2010 Nov 14. PMID: 21076975.
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