Cycling is vigorous exercise, and buckets of research have found a strong correlation between improved mental health and exercise. Granted, we don’t know for sure that it’s causal.
But it kind of stands to reason: Cycling gets your heart pumping, which improves blood- and oxygen flow to your brain and triggers your body’s self-regulation mechanisms. A sound mind in a sound body.
There aren’t a ton of studies specifically probing whether cycling improves mental health. But there are a few suggestive findings: This study found people who cycled to work had better mental health; another small one found cycling reduced the presence of the stress hormone cortisol; yet another discovered that cycling for half an hour improved performance on mental tests (of memory, reasoning, and planning).
Most people find that when they go for a walk, they absorb the street scene better than when they race by in a car. Obviously! But cycling is, for me, the perfect sensual midpoint between the two. You get the visual banquet of walking, but because you’re going faster you get a bigger, longer feast — miles and miles of busy streets, in technicolour close-up.
Exercise always feels nice, of course, whether it’s playing a game of pickup football or going for a run. But when you cycle for a practical purpose — i.e. for transportation, to get from point A to point B — there’s an additional thrill. It gives you a radical sense of self-reliance. Travelling such long distances entirely under your own steam, distances that easily rival the ones that typically require a car or a train has a Promethean quality. You feel like a minor demigod.
After you’ve travelled a serious distance on a bike, it’s hard to feel down on yourself.
In New York, if you’re taking a car or the subway, you’re always slightly nervous that something will screw up and you’ll be late. I mean, maybe you’ll be lucky? But then when you least expect it, wham: You run into a thick knot of traffic or an implacably mysterious subway delay — and now you’re a ball of stress, sitting in your car fuming.
With cycling, there is no traffic that can slow you down.
Part of what makes cycling so appealing is that it is highly meritocratic. Effort = distance, in a completely linear fashion. This feeds the soul.
Cycling is clearly useful for lifting one’s mood if you’re otherwise healthy, and merely facing normal funks and malaise. If you’re living with clinical depression it’s a different problem altogether, requiring careful medical attention. Cycling’s wonderful, but it is not a substitute for treatment.
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