How cycling can help combat loneliness

A mixed group of people is cycling along an urban road. There are different kinds of bikes and even a trailer with kids in. They are smiling and waving. Some are wearing hi-vis but most are in normal clothing.
Cycling is good for your health
Loneliness is bad for our physical and mental wellbeing. Digital officer Rebecca Armstrong shows how cycling can help and how Cycling UK can support those suffering from isolation

One of the nicest things about my early morning cycle rides is nodding and smiling at other early risers on their bikes, walking their dogs or out for a jog. I won’t break any Strava records, but I get home with an enormous sense of wellbeing, as Damon Albarn might say.

This was a lifeline during the various Covid lockdowns of 2020. Like many people I experienced isolation during this period. Working from home, cut off from friends, family and colleagues, loneliness was one of the worst aspects of lockdown.

Lives have changed indefinitely since lockdown, with more people than ever working from home and some still isolating for health reasons. Campaign to End Loneliness found that in 2022 almost half of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely “occasionally, sometimes, often or always”.

This has come at a time when new research has found that loneliness and isolation are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Cycle solution

Cycling is well placed to help combat this. As my anecdote above shows, it gets you outside, in the thick of things, in a way that driving – for all that it’s convenient, warm and dry – never can. How many times have you parked up the car for a quick chat with a friend you’ve spotted? But it’s something you can easily do on a bike.

Simply being outside improves our sense of wellbeing and cycling is ideal for that. But it’s also got a distinctly social side – even if you mostly ride solo. Taking time out to visit a local café provides a chance to talk to someone, and if you go frequently you’ll get to know the staff as well as other regulars.

These ‘micro social interactions’ as you might call them add up and are a good way to ease yourself into socialising if you feel out of practice. They help remove feelings of isolation. You’ll also be supporting a local business and helping your local economy – all for the price of a cup of coffee.

A group of people are cycling on an off-road track. They are mostly on mountain bikes. They are wearing a mix of hi-vis and normal clothing. They are smiling
A Community Cycle Club, like Ash Velo, provides opportunities to ride with other people. Photo: Joolze Dymond

But cycling can be more social than this – and this is where Cycling UK in particular can help. Joining a group is a great way to meet people with whom you already share an interest. There are thousands of Cycling UK member and affiliate groups all over the country, so there’s sure to be one near you.

There are groups covering pretty much every sort of riding – women only, mountain biking, cycling to work, long distance, local café rides and many more. Cycling UK has all the advice you need to set up and run a group. Members are welcome to ride with any member group and non-members are invited to try out riding with a group.

Riding with a group means you’re spending time with other people, getting you out of the house and out of your own head. It provides some much needed social interaction, while also giving you an incentive to participate in an activity you already love.

How Cycling UK can help

Related to this are Cycling UK’s Community Cycle Clubs (CCC). This project aims to connect people with their local communities by providing cycling clubs run via local organisations. These might include older people’s groups, youth groups, workplaces, refugee charities, mosques or veterans’ groups.

People who join a CCC report that they feel happier and more connected to their communities, reducing feelings of isolation.

Paul, a member of the DJK House and SAVI Northwest club, commented: “I joined the club post-Covid. Covid had huge negative impact on me mentality and physically which through the long spells of isolation turned to alcohol to the point I didn’t really want to be here anymore.

“The cycling club was a huge factor in my confidence rebuilding, connecting again with people, which led to huge positives in my mental and physical health. I would say I owe a lot to cycling.”

I met lovely ladies on weekend rides and enjoy cycling with them, which made me less isolated

Access Bikes beneficiary

Cycling UK’s Big Bike Revival project aims to help people get out on a bike for the first time or return to cycling. It runs a variety of free activities in England, including led rides to help people build their confidence on a bike.

These rides bring together people who are at a similar level with their cycling, along with an experienced ride leader, so they can cycle as a group.

“These rides were great as they gave me an opportunity to socialise with people,” Paul from the Neston Earth Group said. “I wanted to meet new friends, meet like-minded people, as I am very lonely.”

Rural Connections has a network of development officers across Scotland’s remoter areas supporting more people to cycle by working with local organisations to offer more cycling, walking and wheeling activities and helping participants to connect with their local communities.

One participant said: “As a middle-aged woman, it’s easy to feel a bit intimidated by all the young trendy cyclists and to lack confidence to go out alone. I think that you’re doing great work to make cycling feel more accessible for everyone. I really hope that more activities are organised. Please keep up the great work, helping the environment and increasing social connections and inclusivity. Thanks.”

Scotland’s Access Bikes project helps support those who are struggling financially to buy a bike and accessories through the scheme, removing one large barrier to owning a cycle: cost. This allows participants to be part of a cycling community they might otherwise have been cut off from.

A beneficiary of the scheme said: “Previously, I drove even for journeys within the village because I can rarely walk more than 100-200m. I have [started] making these journeys by bike instead. It has helped me to feel less isolated and more connected to the world (both human and natural). It has also improved my relationship with my son, as I am able to cycle to school to meet him and ride home together.”

Another commented: “I met lovely ladies on weekend rides and enjoy cycling with them, which made me less isolated.”

A group of people is riding along a paved, tree-lined path. They are mostly on hybrid or mountain bikes. Some are wearing yellow T-shirts with a Pumped Up Crew logo.
Volunteering with Cycling UK supports your local community – and it’s good for your wellbeing. Photo: Robby Spanring

Helping others

Volunteering can be particularly good for fighting feelings of loneliness and isolation. Research shows that volunteering for a charity or other organisation helps people make connections with others, particularly giving them the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds.

Loneliness inflicts huge amounts of stress on the body, while volunteering actively reduces stress. Charitable acts also release ‘feel-good’ hormones, leading to a natural mood boost known as the ‘helper’s high’.

Cycling UK has a range of volunteer opportunities, from moderating Facebook groups which can be done from the comfort of your own home, to leading group rides. All of these can help reduce feelings of isolation.

Online interactions such as moderating a Facebook group have been shown to combat loneliness and can even be a way of facilitating offline friendships. This can also be a good way of testing out volunteering with little commitment.

If you’re ready for something more, volunteering as an event organiser, ride or walk leader or with a local cycling group will get you out and about and meeting people ‘in the real world’.

Volunteers often feel connected to the organisation they volunteer for, experiencing a strong sense of belonging. Cycling UK fosters this by providing all our volunteers with all the resources they need to get the most out of their position. We also celebrate our volunteers with our Going the Extra Mile awards.

Alex, Cycling UK’s head of volunteering, said: “Cycling UK supports more than 8,000 volunteers; those volunteers derive great pleasure from connecting with others and enabling thousands of people every year to enjoy cycling together; these groups not only provide opportunities to cycle together, but most also offer people the chance to socialise and form long-lasting friendships that can sustain them outside of their cycling activities.”

If you’re one of the many people experiencing isolation or loneliness, cycling can make a real difference. It isn’t necessarily easy to put shoe to pedal and get out there, but once you do you’ll feel better for it.