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Bike Talk: Mental Health And Cycling

12 October, 2018

All over social media and the internet, you’ll find various posts, articles and information about World Mental Health Day and Month. In a bid to raise awareness and campaign against the stigma around mental health, it’s a month that’s important to pay attention to and get involved with.

Mental health issues can affect us all in varying ways, but whether you suffer from anxiety or depression - or any mental health condition in between - we could all benefit from making more of an effort in investing in our mental and emotional state the way we do our physical. Just like with physical health, investment in lasting mental health takes time, commitment and thought. 

As a student in university, I started cognitive behavioral therapy after an major life event to help me manage anxiety and stress. While I don’t have a history of depression or anxiety, I do have moments when I feel overwhelmed and burnt out. Often what that looks like is low energy and days when I don't want to get out of bed. I won’t give you a lengthy story about those moment but I know most of you can relate. What I will tell you is how cycling and other mindful practices have helped me overcome those moments when all seems to be hard to understand and manage.

Exercise, primarily running, had become a huge release for me before I started cycling. It made me feel strong, it helped me push myself further than my mental and physical boundaries and it allowed me to escape the outside world for a while. There is nothing more empowering and motivating than realizing the sheer strength of your body, and all of the incredible things it is capable of. Once I started cycling, it quickly became, and remains to be, my daily act of discovering and reclaiming my power.

Nothing has ever served me the way cycling does, and it didn’t take me long to realize that it is about so much more than just a commute or workout, so much more than just another fitness brand. Cycling was – and still is – a space in my head for freedom, a haven, a comfort, a release. While cycling has become a compulsory act of release and fun, it’s in moments of low mood that I start to feel cyclings challenge, drive and ambition to be more than I was the day before; to be the strongest, most powerful version of myself I could possibly be in that single moment. I suddenly feel the urge to never settle, to never assume I am incapable of doing something and to never push past my limits.

Whatever day I’m having, whatever emotion I’m experiencing, whatever achievement I want to celebrate, whatever fallback I want to work through. Whatever happiness I want to share, or sadness I want to release. Whether I need inspiration, a push, some wisdom, encouragement, or just something to remind me the world is so much bigger than whatever I may be feeling in that moment; each ride provides me the safe space to do so. Every time I get stronger in my body, I become stronger in my mind, and the stronger I am in my mind, the braver I can be to look back on that time and continue to move on.

I don’t think there is anything more beautiful and powerful than that. That moment where you feel your heart beating and your skin getting warmer and your blood pumping – that’s the moment you realize you’re alive, and that no matter what, you can survive and get through almost anything. That even when you want to give up on that climb, your body will pedal you through, it will hold you, it will preserve you, it will protect you.

Our stories and rides are not about the final destination. Your story is about your journey. Your journey is your life. Unfortunately, not everyone will always understand you, and unfortunately there will always be people who simply only read the blurb of your story but profess to know every page. But never let them make you feel anything short of the person you are. No one is allowed to judge the person you had to become in order to survive. Find the people who will love you when you cannot love yourself, and who aren’t there just for your best bits, but for the dark bits too. The bits you don’t see on social media, or when the doors are closed.

In this journey though there are things to be mindful of that can help you seek the right type of help if you really struggle with anxiety or depression. They say our minds and bodies are linked. When we engage all parts of ourselves we can truly experience a healthy orientation in our lives that we feel when we ride. 

I’m a true believer in investing in my mental health and I’m committed to it. When I’m healthy in my mind and body, I am able to give the world the best parts of me. While there is no quick fix, there are certainly little bite sized hacks that can help and every little bit goes a long way…

Exercising gives you immediate benefits in the form of an endorphin rush - those happy hormones that give you the feeling of being high on life after a bike ride or run has profound impacts on keeping our mental health in check. Research data tells us that physically fit people are generally healthier and happier while their counterparts generally suffer health issues and forms of depression and anxiety. While there are grey areas in the middle, I’m sure the more aware we are of taking care of our bodies, the greater our minds benefit.

Eat Healthy  
Eating habits are a way to either activate self-care or self harm. When we’ve had a bad day, it’s tempting to comfort eat that may make us feel sluggish and unpleased with ourselves. If you’re low on some nutrient levels, chances are your mental health can be affected. Your diet is a great way to practice self care when we are feeling worthy of being fed nutritious food.  

Gratitude practices
One of the best ways to appreciate the wins in your life is to step back and actually see them. It’s easy to forget that friendly conversation with a stranger you had in the coffee shop, or that smile you exchanged on your commute. But these interactions all build onto one another, having a chain reaction that leads to feelings of positivity and gratitude. Even saying thank you for the little things will instantly help boost your mood.

Pay It Forward 
Ever heard of paying it forward? Taking the time to pass some of those positive experiences on to others is one of the most meaningful things you can do - and it’s pretty effortless too. Make a conscious decision every time you have a positive exchange to try to continue the chain reaction. This will encourage you to be aware of the ways in which you are interacting with others and therefore be mindful about how you treat others. Making someone’s day - there’s nothing like it.

Quality sleep
From low levels of energy to unhealthy cravings, a lack of sleep negatively affects your lifestyle, robbing you of your well-deserved happiness. Make sleep a priority in your life: aim for eight hours each night, invest in some blackout blinds, lavender room spray, a sleep tracker, and pop in a pair of earplugs too if you’re easily woken. Your mental health will thank you.

Positive thinking
I’m a believer in cognitive behavioral therapy as it was the type of therapy I used in college. While negative and positive things do happen around us all the time, we can protect our minds from a disturbed state of mind by predicting and interpreting our views of a situation. CBT helps correct these misinterpretations. You can download mental health apps to help get you started on developing healthy cognitive habits, which are free! I still use CBT when life becomes stressful with apps like What’s Up and find that I can change the course of any situation to a positive experience and outcome.

Engage in Positive Community
It might sound simple, but being around people who are constantly negative, complaining and drab can be incredibly draining - you don’t need that in your life! While it’s easy to get sucked into negativity when it surrounds you, luckily the same is true for positivity. 

To surround yourself with positivity, join a cycling group, spin class, or any type of group. Building relationships that inspire positive behavior is likely to help us keep our minds engaged and healthy. With likeminded folks, chances are they know what it’s like to be in your cleats or shoes!

With the fast-paced lives most of us lead juggling work, family and everything in between, it’s no wonder so many of us are finally starting to pay attention to our mental health. While cycling can tremendously help us, being mindful in our daily lives can boost productivity, get your creative juices flowing and quite simply, lead to a healthy  mind. Sounds good, right?

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