When I proudly announced around Christmas time that I was committing to riding my bike in the new year, I didn’t find it unusual that my friends and family were fully supportive.
What I did find unusual, however, was what happened when I wrote about my cycling journey and shared it online. Within hours, I received a stream of tweets and messages of encouragement, support and reassurance from people I had never met before. These strangers told me I wouldn’t regret the new love affair I was about to have with my bike. In fact, many told me it’d be the best decision I’d make this year.
You see, I expected some digs when I wrote that piece, maybe a few throwaway comments about my shopper bike and perhaps an experienced cyclist telling me something I wrote in my article was wrong. Instead, I was welcomed with open arms into this new community of people who showered me with advice, tips and what seemed like genuine excitement to have another person in the club.
When I wrote about feeling nervous about crossing busy roads and using the pedestrian crossing instead, they told me it wasn’t a sign of weakness.
When I explained I was petrified of cycling alone in London, they told me they had been there and that it would get better.
When I shared pictures of my bike parked up after doing my first solo ride, they congratulated me.
And when I posed the question whether I could do a full 18 miles alone on a route I’d never cycled, they told me to do it. (And I did, and I loved it.)
That wasn’t all. They told me apps to download, cycling clubs to join and routes to cycle. They gave me encouragement, sent me kind words, wished me luck, and welcomed me into their gang. And those people actually got me out on my bike. Online strangers made me feel at ease that it’s 100% okay to be at the beginning of my cycling journey with little knowledge about how to pump a tyre.
“You’ll get there, just keep at it, your confidence grows,” one woman wrote to me. “I started off just like you, using crossings at scary junctions and all, then eight months later I was planning a cycle across Canada.”
Another wrote: “We’ll give you a silent round of applause if we see you! Good to see you riding your bike the right way; to enjoy it!”
Funnily enough, after having a look online I found out that being motivated to get outside and exercise because of support you received online isn’t actually unique. A study by University of Pennsylvania in 2015 found that social networks alone can be a “powerful motivator” to encourage more physical activity. The study found it was online peers on these networks sending encouraging messages that would motivate people to exercise.
“Even anonymous social interaction will create behaviour change,” the authors concluded. “[In the study] the participants, in fact, knew remarkably little about one another, yet the results indicate that even minimal exposure to social cues can have strong effects.”
That conclusion sums up exactly how I felt. I didn’t know these people at all and it’s strange to think that reading words on a screen from them had such an impact, but it really did. When I was sat at my desk at work scrolling through everyone’s tweets of support, it genuinely made me want to go out on my bike in that moment.
I’ve never experienced this sort of support and encouragement online - even as a runner, when I would share questions before my half-marathon, or when I started Pilates and found it really difficult - I never felt that sense of community or support of people egging me on.
Having people telling you you can do something (and meaning it), really does make you believe you can do it. Hearing people’s journeys from being a beginner to achieving milestones in that sport does make you realise it’s possible.
Surely this is something we should all try and do to encourage others to exercise? If every person who was worried or anxious about starting a new discipline of sport - or any exercise for that matter - was met with encouraging comments from others, I’m pretty sure more people would be inspired to get out there and just do it.
So this is a callout: To anyone you can support in their fitness journey - even as a stranger online - do it.
And a thank you: To the people I’ve never even met who, unknowingly, got me to get up and out on my bike with a hangover on a few hours’ sleep just because I wanted to do that 18-mile cycle on my own.