Sheri Foster began riding her bike to work every day when she was working as a lifeguard while studying for her undergraduate degree. 20 years later, biking remains an essential part of her day. Foster strongly believes that cycling is responsible for her improved mental wellness.
For Foster, making the decision to commute by bike was not just about physical fitness. The exhilaration of rolling along a bike path and the challenge of riding year-round through any kind of weather has prepared Foster for the work day, and helps her unwind at the end. “If I don’t bike, I feel as though I’m missing a part of my day,” said Foster. “When I bike each day I feel happier. I’m more at peace and more relaxed.”
Claudine Fortier, a young professional, feels the same way. Initially, she began biking for transportation to save money. “Soon, I realized that I wasn’t just saving money, but that I was actually addicted to riding each day. My days were easier and I felt good.”
Happiness and mental satisfaction are not just in these riders’ heads. Studies have shown that moderate, daily exercise results in improved moods by reducing symptoms of stress, anger, depression, and anxiety. A study of physical activity and mental health conducted in 2000 found that physical activity can “appear to equal meditation or relaxation.” And in 2010, a study of middle-aged women found that daily exercise could improve feelings of self worth, self-esteem, and even social skills.
Interestingly, it is not just the healthy, everyday rider whose mental wellness benefits from cycling. Moderate, daily exercise can also be an effective way of managing – or even alleviating – certain mental illnesses. There is evidence to suggest that daily exercise can help individuals with sleep disorders, addiction problems, moderate depression, and dementia.
These studies highlight that everyday cycling could improve our mental well being and make us happier but the reasons why are still not fully understood. Dr. Glenda MacQueen, Vice Dean, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary, is leading a study investigating how activity can make us happier. Although the study is still ongoing, MacQueen believes that exercise could change the brain in a mild way – at least, for some people. “There is preliminary evidence suggesting that there’s a gene responsible for increasing a specific protein in the brain ( … ) a protein that is lower in people with depression,” said MacQueen. However, because of everyone’s unique genetic makeup, MacQueen emphasizes that exercise won’t affect everyone in the same way.
Denver Nixon, Sessional Instructor in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia, has another theory. He is interested in how our method of commuting influences our emotional state and mental well being. For a study due to be published this fall, “The Social Connection, Alienation, and Empathy of Three Commute Mode Practices in Vancouver, BC,” qualitative field studies were conducted over four years. Nixon found that bike commuters felt as though they were part of a community, making them more empathetic and less aggressive commuters. Drivers, on the other hand, were more likely to feel alienated and isolated in their vehicles. This connection to the environment felt by riders is likely a key factor in their mental wellness.
The reasons why exercise makes us feel good are still unclear, but it is clear that daily exercise can improve our mood, cognition, and our physical health.
Karin Olafson is the assistant web editor at Avenue magazine in Calgary, AB. Outside of office hours, she writes about sustainable transportation, health, and fitness. karinolafson.wordpress.com
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