Cycling did not save my life, it changed it immeasurably for the better…
Digital team's blog
Today, 3rd of June, is the first World Health Organisation ‘World Bicycle Day’- a day to celebrate the uniqueness, versatility and empowerment and health benefits of the bike. In this special blog to Sarah Strong from Bikes and Brains talks about how life on two wheels helps her manage her mental health and connected her to a whole new community.
I never thought of myself as a cyclist until quite by accident I found myself marshalling a mountain bike race in East London back in 2003. I was recovering from my first clinically diagnosed period of depression and perhaps a little dizzy from the swooping personal learning curve that accompanies the realisation that you are ‘one of those people’. I’d been through something similar six years previously but hadn’t really told anyone, been too scared to seek help. This time I had more of an inkling that something was very wrong and I dredged up the dwindling reserves of fortitude I had to drag myself to my GP. Second time around was a bit of a revelation; once I knew what it was and had some direction to what I might do about it I felt way more positive. Six months later I had bought a second-hand road bike and had begun to commute across Central London to work. I hadn’t ever done much exercise aside from walking so cycling gave me a taste of what added strength and fitness felt like.
The first positive impact was discovering the social side of a community I hadn’t been part of before. I found myself in an amazingly supportive environment, where others were willing to share their knowledge and encourage you to try new things. One thing that I discovered through cycling was the meditative qualities of a road ride - you have to a certain level of awareness to account for traffic, weather conditions, road surface, breathing and effort levels, and so on. Having to concentrate on these practical necessities helps to push aside the negative thoughts. I often ride the same, familiar, roads at the weekend which allows me to develop a connectivity with the countryside around me; I notice the changing seasons, the rise and fall of gradient, but also allow my mind to wander. I return home in a more relaxed state, and a satisfied tiredness.
Cycling can be social, solitary, or both at the same time. Sometimes solitary pedalling is good for the soul, but on other occasions a bit of company can make all the difference to a grey state of mind.
There’s nothing like the shared experience of a ride, sometimes unspoken, of pleasure and pain. Also snacks.
Cycling did not save my life, it changed it immeasurably for the better… when I feel overwhelmed and hemmed-in by my surroundings I know I can access the open skies and the embrace of the countryside with relative ease.”
I have learnt so much about the mechanics of a bicycle, how to replace and repair my bike should the need arise. This has given me a feeling of self-sufficiency and ‘knowledge is power’. It also means less to worry about if problems arise when I’m out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve also discovered a great deal more about the geography of the city I live in from navigating around and through it in a new way - from the handlebars.
I’ve talked a little bit about how cycling has helped with depression and anxiety in pieces for online and print media and it seems there’s a large overlap of those who cycle and those who have experience of depression. While I wouldn’t suggest that cycling has cured my depression, it has provided a way to contemplate my own mental health and given me a space to discuss it with others without it necessarily being the focus of a chat. I’ve tried I’ve CBT, MBCT, and counselling over the past twenty years and I’ve also investigated yoga, looked at changing my diet for the better but it has been my love of cycling that has helped my find peace with my depression and a great tool when I know that I need that much needed boost.
With so many ways to cycle, from short commutes to mile-eating all nighters to the sea – I’d encourage people to give it a try and let me know. I’m inviting others to contribute to my blog Bikes & Brains– hopefully people will be able to read something which will spark a sense of recognition with their own experiences!
Sarah Strong blogs about mental health and cycling on her blog Bikes and Brains at www.bikesandbrains.com and you can follower her on Twitter via @bikesandbrains.
Rethink Mental Illness are proud to be charity of the year for the cycling brand Stolen Goat.