One of the many reasons I ride a bike is for my mind health because cycling for mental wellbeing is so great. So why don’t more doctors send their patients away with a bike hire voucher instead of a prescription? That’s exactly what’s happening in Wales right now.
The pilot program, the first such initiative in Britain, according to the health board that is leading it, reflects an effort by medical professionals around the world to give patients alternatives to drugs, in order to avoid side effects and improve cost efficiency.
Patients at two medical centres in Cardiff are offered six-month subscriptions to a bike-rental service that allows them to make unlimited free rides of up to 30 minutes at a time.
Research has shown that incorporating cycling into your daily routine is not only healthy for your body, but also your brain.
Mental health bonus
Like me, many of you have taken up cycling as a way to get in shape and live a healthier lifestyle, but have really benefited from the mental health bonus. According to experts as little as 30 minutes of steady cycling on the road, trail, or stationary bike can improve memory, reasoning, and planning. It also has scientifically proven benefits for mental health, helping combat depression and anxiety.
And the benefits don’t stop there. Experts also tell us that cycling can actually grow your brain in the same way it can grow your muscles. When we ride, the blood that flows to the muscles increases, allowing our bodies to build more capillaries, supplying more blood (and therefore more oxygen) to those muscles. The same process actually occurs in our brains. Cycling allows our cardiovascular system to grow further into our brains, bringing them more oxygen and nutrients that can improve its performance.
As well, when we ride our bikes, our brains also increase their production of proteins used for creating new brain cells. By riding regularly, we actually double (or even triple) new cell production in our brains. It also increases neurotransmitter activity, allowing the regions of our brain to communicate more effectively; therefore, improving our cognitive abilities.
Benefits for the ageing brain
The benefits of cycling are especially important for ageing brains. These processes counteract the natural decline of brain function and development as we age. Scientists have compared the brains of adults in their 60s and 70s and found that the brains of those who regularly participated in physical activities like cycling actually appeared younger than those who do not. This proves that cycling can help keep our minds sharp well into our later years.
But you don’t have to be over 60 to enjoy those benefits. People of all ages can experience the benefits of cycling on psychological wellbeing regardless of their physical health. Studies have shown that these improvements were even stronger for mental health patients and people suffering from mild depression, and can potentially be just as effective (if not more effective) than psychotherapy. Regular activities such as cycling not only combat mental health issues like these, but they can also help prevent them long-term.
Happy brain chemicals
The great news about cycling doesn’t stop there. Cycling also improves your mood, reduces anxiety, and allows you to handle stress more effectively by increasing the levels of serotonin and dopamine production in our brains. These chemicals make us feel ‘happy’ when they are released in our brains, and they are not the only feel-good chemicals produced when we ride.
Our bodies also produce endorphins and cannabinoids from the same chemical family associated with cannabis, although these are naturally produced by our bodies.
The good news never stops. The lesson here is that you should ride your bike more often.