How cycling can improve mental health

Cycling UK communication officer, Christina Bengston on her cycle commute

How cycling can improve mental health

The third Monday in January has been dubbed ‘Blue Monday’ – the most depressing day of the year – but mental-health experts all agree that the idea of one day being universally more depressing is nonsense. Our mental health is something we all should look after every day, and cycling can help

The truth behind 'Blue Monday'

The idea behind Blue Monday came from a travel company in 2004 as a PR gimmick to sell more holidays. Cliff Arnall, a former tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University claimed to have formulated an equation to work out the most depressing day of the year. The equation considered things like weather, debt, the time since Christmas and failing our new year resolutions. 

The formula he created actually has no scientific basis and has been widely debunked by scientists and mental-health experts, and even Cliff himself has apologised for coining the term.

Perhaps the true meaning of Blue Monday is that we all have mental health and that there are steps that we can take on every day of the year to try and protect it

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, Mental Health Foundation

In 2016, the mental-health charity Mind launched the #BlueAnyDay campaign to dispel the Blue Monday myth and remind people that depression is a serious condition that can affect people on any day. 

Mind’s head of information, Stephen Buckley, said: “1 in 6 people will experience depression during their life.

“There is no credible evidence to suggest that one day in particular can increase the risk of people feeling depressed. There are of course certain things that may make people feel down at this time of year, such as post-Christmas financial strains, broken New Year’s resolutions, bad weather and short daylight hours. However, depression is not just a one-day event.”

Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director for England and Wales at the Mental Health Foundation, wrote earlier this month: “Perhaps the true meaning of Blue Monday is that we all have mental health and that there are steps that we can take on every day of the year to try and protect it.”


The impact of exercise on our mental health

The importance of exercise is often underestimated by individuals and even some health care professionals. 

Aerobic exercises – including cycling – have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Exercise improves your mood because it has several significant impacts on your brain. 

When you exercise and your heart rate increases, more oxygen is pumped to your brain which has been shown to help manage anxiety and depression. 

Endorphins and other mood-enhancing chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are also released which all help to make us feel more positive. 

Research suggests these improvements may have longer lasting effects too. Regular exercise can actually generate new neurons (cells that transmit information to the nervous system) in the brain which can lead to enhanced memory, improved mood and cognitive function, and learning capabilities. 



What are the health benefits of physical activity, Public Health England
What are the health benefits of physical activity, Public Health England

Cycle your way to wellbeing

NHS physical activity guidelines state that we should do some kind of physical activity that raises our heart rate for 30 minutes, five times a week, or several short sessions of vigorous intensity activity. If you're new to exercise you should build up slowly. The message is, any activity is better than none. 

The most important thing is to find something, suach as cycling, that you enjoy.

One of the many people who have chosen cycling as one of their ways to improve their mental health and wellbeing is Harrison Read. 

Harrison began cycling during lockdown and after seeing the benefits to his own mental health he decided to make a documentary to share his own journey and discuss with others how cycling has helped them. 

Getting started

  • Anything is better than nothing: you don't need to start off cycling for 30 minutes every day. Why not start off by doing 5-10 minutes and slowly increase over time. 
  • Be kind to yourself: When we're tired, feeling anxious, depressed or low, it can be extremely difficult to be motivated to exercise. Even though research shows it can improve our mood these obstacles can be overwhelming. Start small and don't set yourself big goals. Set achievable targets and build them up over time. 
  • Celebrate your achievements: Increase your motivation by giving yourself a treat for exercising. This could be anything, a soak in the bath, a cup of soothing hot chocolate. 
  • Make it social: Exercising with others can make it much easier to stick with and can make it more enjoyable. Ask a family member or friend to join you, or consider joining a Cycling UK group

No one-size fits all

Author of Back in the Frame, Jools Walker spoke to Cycling UK in 2019 and said:

"Exercise can be a huge help for a lot of people when it comes to mental health, but I’ve never been a believer in it being a fix-all. Perhaps that sounds strange coming from me - someone who evangelises the benefits of being on a bike - but I'm very wary of touting exercise as a 'one size fits all' cure for depression.”

There is lots of evidence that exercise can be extremely effective in improving our mental health, but every one of us is unique. We all respond differently and have different interests and motivators. 

If cycling helps you, great. If you prefer to walk, run, skip or swim then focus on that. Find what activity makes you smile and try to take the time every day to look after your physical and mental health. 

Additional support

If you need additional support for your mental health speak to your GP, contact Mind for information or Samaritans if you want to talk. 

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