We watch genre movies and TV shows and wonder how we’d react, adapt, survive in extraordinary circumstances, all the while safe in the assumption that our hypotheses will never be tested. But then it happens in real life and the reality is unlike any of our imagined scenarios. We’re not living in concrete bunkers, roaming rubbled streets for sacks of potatoes, bartering for black market beans. No, we’re sitting on our sofas in trackies or ‘daytime pyjamas’, keeping our distance and working from home, protecting against an invisible foe.
With limited time allowed outdoors and a suddenly far more sedentary lifestyle, the advice to take regular physical exercise has never fallen on such attentive ears. Stuck at home, the ‘I’m too busy’ excuse has vaporised and suddenly we’re grasping at things to do to fill the long hours of isolation. How best to pass the time? How best to make use of our permitted outdoor exercise? But there’s another, perhaps bigger, question to consider: how best to look after our mental health?
The good news is that the answers to these questions are more or less the same. Keeping fit and healthy is one of the best methods of caring for our mental health, regardless of whether it’s another normal day, or day 128 of isolation. We spoke with psychiatrist, Dr Bennie Steyn, who is under strict lockdown in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and to UK GP, Dr Mowat, who found some time in her unusually busy schedule to take us through the many ways cycling helps to keep us sane and healthy. At the best of times and the worst of times.
NB: Make sure to keep up to date and follow your government’s guidelines on outdoor activity, which at present (in the UK) allows for one single form of exercise per day, whether that’s walking, running or cycling. Australians may leave the house once a day and meet one person with whom to do exercise. US rules differ widely about out-of-home exercise on a state-by-state basis. There are no restrictions on time spent exercising in your own property though, and indoor training provides sometimes even better performance rewards.
We all know cycling has endless physical benefits and you don’t need the best kit and equipment to reap the benefits. Dr Mowat explained, “Physical exercise burns through calories by raising metabolic rate and burning fat. As a result, it promotes weight loss, meets the current obesity epidemic head on and also, really importantly, halves your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
She went on to sing the praises of cycling specifically, and the way it provides benefits without putting too much strain on the body: “Cycling is a non-weight bearing, aerobic exercise. What this means is that while being gentle on your joints it gives your muscles a workout, and muscles that are worked regularly become stronger and leaner. Sometimes we forget that our heart is also a muscle. Exercising improves our heart health. This reduces our risks of developing hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Big win on all three.”
So, cycling is good for muscular strength, core stability, heart health and even posture, but what about the mental side of things? Let’s cast our minds back to a time before Covid-19 when there were no rules inhibiting duration or frequency, and when there was pro cycling on the TV to keep us motivated. There were still bad days on and off the bike, even then. The concept of mental health and wellbeing, the release of endorphins, the freedom of fresh air is not new to the cycling world, but it’s more important now than maybe it’s ever been.
Now for the answer to the big question: how can cycling help us look after our mental health? How do we stay sane during lockdown?
“Cycling gives you a legal high,” Dr Mowat began. “Like any form of exercise, it releases adrenaline and endorphins. These feel-good substances reduce stress, increase wellbeing, and reduce anxiety and depression. Mental health is a significant concern in normal times. Exercise helps in normal times. A global pandemic is about as far from normal times as it is possible to be.
“During this pandemic, anyone with existing mental health issues might expect to have heightened levels of anxiety, depression and even despair and, hopefully, they have established counselling and care networks to support them. It’s expected that most of us, at this strange time, will feel worried, isolated, confused and lonely. In this state, we will all, to a greater or lesser extent, experience some mental health difficulties.”
“Being a psychiatrist, we know that exercise has clear and proven benefits for mental health,” Dr Bennie Steyn explains. “It improves sleep which has beneficial effects on mood and concentration. When you exercise your brain doesn’t only make serotonin, the happiness hormone, but it also produces something called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which is a sort of brain fertiliser. It helps with regrowth of those parts of the brain that gets damaged through stress and anxiety. It expands the hippocampus which is important in improving the memory problems seen in depression.
“What we’ve always said in psychiatry is there are five things aside from medication in treating depression, and these principles are important for everybody: 1) Good restful sleep, 2) exercise, we’re talking about at least 15 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, 3) a good balanced diet, and then 4) meaningful social relationships and 5) some form of spirituality or mindfulness.”
Cycling is social game, for most of us. Anything from a chat with a co-worker who clatters into the office in cleats, to friendly rivalry in your local cycling club; from the online world of cycling fans to following international competitions.
Dr Steyn says, “I think the challenge now is to try and slow down, and to cope with being at home and not being able to escape. It can take some adjustment to get used to spending more time indoors with one’s family or house mates. For people being quarantined or living by themselves it is even harder, as they can’t go to the pub in the evenings or go for a Saturday morning group ride anymore”.
“I think that’s really important to remember that exercise for many people remains a socially motivated activity and we should encourage one another in doing that. Research has shown that aerobic performance in exercise improves when you’re doing it with a training partner. Whether it is through a healthy rivalry or because one doesn’t want to let the other person down, the fact is it works. Maybe rather than using your WhatsApp group to rant about not being able to cycle say, ‘come on guys, tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock let’s all get on our indoor bikes at the same time, and we can compare our results on Strava.’ You can share the results and maybe have a beer simultaneously at the end of your workout”.
Dr Steyn suggests that, especially at a time like this, we could all be incorporating a form of meditation into our daily routine. Whether it’s walking meditation, guided meditation or the traditional kind where you sit and pay attention to your surroundings, relax the tension in your muscles and focus on breathing.
“It’s about the process rather than the goal itself. The first step is getting into a daily routine of taking stock of what’s happening in your body and in your mind. Even just sitting for three minutes and becoming aware of how scattered your mind is, is already better than bulldozing into your day”.
He recommends apps like Headspace and Calm to get things started.
If all the above hasn’t yet convinced you of its merits, Dr Mowat summarises, “Cycling improves your sleep, improves your sex life, gives your immune system a boost and enhances your creativity. Getting outside, breathing in fresh air and exercising simultaneously gives your brain a break and forces it to focus. People who cycle are more engaged, more driven, more alert and as a result more creative.”
Ultimately, cycling, whether on the indoor trainer or out on the country lanes, will do your mental health a world of good. Just remember right now to cycle responsibly, maintain social distancing and always wear a helmet. Anything that you can do to improve your mental health right now, as we face up to more weeks of lockdown, is vital. So, do some exercise every day and consider making cycling part of your routine.