Cycle Away from Stress
Cycling keeps you fit, and it’s a stress beater too. Matthew Barbour takes a look at how riding your bike can stop you being driven up the wall.
Whatever your reason for cycling, one thing’s for sure – your two-wheel habit can be as good for your state of mind as it is for your body. “Cycling is one of the most effective treatments for stress and in many cases has been proven to be as effective as medication – if not more so,” explains Neil Shah, psychotherapist and director of the Stress Management Society (www.stress.org.uk). “Over four times more GPs now prescribe exercise therapy as their most common treatment for stress and depression when compared to three years ago.”
In an age where we’re never more than an arm’s length from our mobiles and Blackberries, stress is a bigger issue than ever. According to a recent CBI/Axa survey, stress is the single biggest cause of absence from work, costing the national economy a staggering £4 billion. “All too often, people look for a cure to stress once the horse has bolted, when it’s much healthier to develop ways to deal with stress on a day-to-day level before it gets to that stage,” says Shah. “Riding a bike is ideal because it’s so accessible and achievable – and the mountain of scientific evidence pointing towards its stress-busting properties is growing by the day.
Perhaps the best-known mental exercise boost is the ‘runner’s high’ experienced by endurance athletes, now proven by German researchers to be more than a rather pleasant figment of the imagination. University of Bonn neurologists visualised endorphins in the brains of 10 volunteers before and after a two-hour running session using a technique called positive emission tomography (PET).
Comparing the pre- and post-run scans, they found evidence of more opiate binding of the happy hormone in the frontal and limbic regions of the brain, areas known to be involved in emotional processing and stress. “There’s a direct link between feelings of wellbeing and endurance exercise of all kinds, and for the first time this study proves the physiological mechanism behind that,” explains study co-ordinator Professor Henning Boecker. And because the runner’s high only seems to kick in after at least an hour’s exercise, ironically you’re more likely to experience it in the saddle than on foot!
The mind-body connection doesn’t stop there. Researchers from Illinois University in the US found that an improvement of only five per cent in cardiorespiratory fitness from aerobic exercise led to an improvement of up to 15 per cent in mental tests and an ability to deal with stress. “It boosts blood flow – and, in turn, oxygen – to your brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, explaining how exercise helps ward off Alzheimer’s,” says study author Professor Arthur Kramer.
And when it comes to rhythm, cycling knows no equal. “Stress makes your heart beat faster, which leads to shallow, fast breathing, a build-up of CO2 and a lack of oxygen in the brain, leading to more stress,” explains Shah. “Cycling actually forces you to regulate your breathing, as well as to breathe deeper to expel any lingering CO2 – both key methods used to alleviate stress in non-riders, so you’re practising proven clinical techniques.”
And, according to University of Bristol psychologists, expanding your lungs lifts your diaphragm, taking pressure off the nerve centre in your solar plexus and relieving the stress on your central nervous system.
Sleep it off
A common problem with stress is finding the ‘off’ switch, and without sufficient sleep that isn’t possible, according to Professor Jim Horne from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. “Reducing regular sleep by just one hour each night can lead to a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, which can prevent deep, regenerative sleep, making it even harder to sleep,” he explains. “Exercise is the one factor that has been shown to redress that imbalance.” So those hill intervals won’t just knacker you out in the short-term, they’ll also help you catch some quality shut-eye. “Exercising outside also exposes you to daylight, which helps get your circadian rhythm back in sync,” adds Horne.
And the social side of cycling could be doing you as much good as the exercise. UCLA researchers found that socialising releases the hormone oxytocin, which buffers the ‘fight or flight’ response to calm you down. Another study from Harvard Medical School found those with the most friends cut their risk of death by more than 60 per cent, reducing blood pressure and strengthening the immune system. The results were so significant, researchers concluded that not having close friends is as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight. Factor in cycling and you’ll be fighting fit for a long time to come.
Almost half of drivers name their commute as the most stressful part of their lives, says the Stress Management Association. So why not get to work under your own steam? Sports medicine expert Paula Coates offers some handy tips…
Take it easy
Squeezing rides into your day shouldn’t be another source of stress. “I deal with a lot of top executives who simply add this to their huge ‘to do’ list and become stressed about beating times and all the organisational difficulties of cycling to work, when that’s not what it should be about,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a rigid rule, so take days off, keep the route simple and don’t see it as a challenge.”
Mix it up
Cycling can be dangerous if it’s dark and you’re not on a main road. Coates suggests pairing up with cycling colleagues who live near you and planning a few different routes. “Come up with at least four alternative routes and throw a dice to decide which one to do to add spontaneity and safety – it will also allow you to add a hill one day but not the next, or take an easy route if you’ve been ill.”
“People in cars don’t look out for cyclists in the same way they do other vehicles,” says Coates, “so you need to be extra vigilant and make yourself seen.” As well as reflective strips and main lights, try Cateye TL-SL100 LEDs (£14.99). They’re light and can be attached anywhere thanks to the elasticated cord.
Pack it in
Cycling to and from work is all about preparation. “Try to take your week’s clothing into work in the car or on the bus on a Monday,” says Coates. And be sure to choose your backpack carefully; ones with mesh structural supports between your spine and the pack are ideal because they evenly distribute the weight away from the back, preventing chafing and impact bruising.
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