“Cycling has saved my life,” admits Oliver Atkins. The 32-year-old, from Market Drayton in Shropshire, credits cycling as being the main contributor to him recovering from a severe alcohol addiction, where he was drinking up to 100 units every day. “I used to suffer badly from anxiety and depression but these have become far more manageable and less severe thanks to consistent bike riding,” he says. “The endorphin and dopamine hits that you receive when riding a bike are transcendent to anyone with an addictive personality.”
Oliver has now been cycling for six years, after receiving a drink driving ban in October 2011. For three of those years he has raced competitively. Cycling, he says, is unique: “It is a hobby, sport and mode of transport in one. It’s difficult to think of another activity where you can happily chat with friends and acquaintances while improving your mental and physical health in glorious surroundings which are ever changing.”
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Oliver shed almost more than seven stone when he took up cycling, has ridden from Land’s End to John O’Groats in four days, raced in some of the best amateur races in the country and now coaches youths and adults. “I owe my life to a very simple piece of engineering and I’m thankful for it every single day of my now happy life,” he says.
And he isn’t the only one. When I sought to find people to speak to about if and how cycling had benefitted their mental health, I was overwhelmed by the response. “Without it, I would have been lost,” reveals Ben Matthews, 42, from London. “After emergency major surgery operation for bowel cancer, during chemotherapy and after, I cycled everyday. It was great for my physical recovery and a real aid in keeping me motivated and focused.”
For Ben, cycling has been a way to relax and let “light activity do the healing”. He has always been a regular cyclist, but post-op he would get on his bike and explore for around two hours each day. He cycled without competing with traffic, relaxed, and enjoyed the journey. “It really was a great way to cover more ground and lifts you out of your environment while allowing you to be ‘present’,” he adds.
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While some cyclists are focused on the physical benefits of the sport, others reap the mental benefits of being on two wheels. In 2017, Cycling UK published Rides of Way, a survey of almost 11,500 off-road cyclists. They found 91% of respondents rated off-road cycling as ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ important for their mental health, which happened to be slightly more than those who said it benefited their physical health.
A BMJ study in 2017 found stress reduction was an important consequence of routine bicycle use. In the study, those who cycled to and from work had a “significantly lower risk” of being stressed than non-bicycle commuters. And this makes a lot of sense. Since I’ve started cycling I’ve enjoyed the benefits of getting out on my bike to socialise, but I’ve also found nothing calms me more after a busy or stressful day that going outside on my bike alone.
A few weeks ago - on a particularly testing day - I came straight in from work, got changed, hopped on my bike and went out for a seven-mile ride. It wasn’t particularly long or taxing, but that wasn’t my goal. I was doing it to calm my mind. I spent half an hour cycling around a park - completely flat - round and around again thinking about nothing else. I came home and I felt refreshed. I can completely relate to the power of cycling for mental health as well as physical.
Cycling to de-stress and to achieve mental balance is something Jacqueline Hooton, 55, from Bognor Regis, can relate to. She has been cycling since she was a little girl and firmly believes the benefits of spending time outside improves her mental wellbeing. “I cycle along the beach where I live every day and I always feel better for doing so,” she says. “Cycling can’t necessarily cure a deep rooted mental health issue but the habit of outdoor cycling is about investing in mental health and helping build resilience. It gives me time away from 24/7 digital communications and a chance to switch off.”
“Cycling feels like freedom, it’s a chance to be fully present, concentrate on your surroundings and the environment,” she adds. “It feels exhilarating, uplifting and joyful. It combines exercise, fresh air and time away from the busy-ness of life.
“It’s my go to activity at times of stress, worry or if I ever feel overwhelmed. I literally can’t stop smiling when I am on my bike and perhaps that’s something to do with the childlike pleasure we take in riding, much like fairground rides and merry-go-rounds.”
Do you have a story about cycling you would like to share? I’d love to hear it. Drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.