This article was published in 2020, in Magazine 146.
It’s easy to see how cycling can improve physical fitness. Less easy to see, but as important, are the mental health benefits of cycling. Self-empowerment, self-reliance, and anxiety relief are all great benefits. One of the most important, however, is regaining a sense of scale and purpose in the world. Why is this the case? Let’s think about the sedentary lifestyle that modern society typically encourages. This lifestyle has disconnected us from our fundamental physical need for movement and basic psychological need to adapt to an everchanging environment. It’s disconnected us from the randomness of the world by giving us an illusion of control and predictability; so we can live in our heads, and forget our bodies.
One of the prime examples of this disconnection and its effects is the car. Modern cars are supremely comfortable environments – a bubble that separates you from the world. Windows around you, roof above you, blocking yourself off from the elements. You can choose what music to hear, what temperature you want to feel. The seasons and weather almost don’t matter because you’re protected from them. The most pressing matters are those of other road users or roadworks – usually ‘getting in your way’ in a frustrating manner. Likewise, difficult terrain such as hills only mean you have to push slightly harder on the accelerator. You’re in control of your environment and as such it’s a safe and soothing space for you, until something doesn’t work and you become stuck and powerless.
Compare this to a bike. On a bike you are much more connected and exposed to the world, the weather and the seasons. You are more sensitive to what is going on in the world, and you have to adapt to it. Think of the times when the effort of your pedalling doesn’t seem to be matched by your rate of progress. You check different variables – is it me, is it the bike, is it the road, is it the weather? Some factors are in your power to change (stiff chain), and some of them aren’t (gale-force winds). When you fix what you can, you get immediate feedback that you made a difference. The things you can’t change, you learn to cope with. You do this by creating an encouraging inner self-dialogue, you cheer yourself, you derive pride in having ‘survived’ the elements thrown your way.
Self-reliance and freedom
There’s a strong relationship between mental health, self-reliance and freedom. On a bike, you can feel freer than in a car because you are more autonomous. You don’t need petrol stations, you don’t need roads, you only need yourself and basic repair skills. In society, we may think we’re independent because we buy things with our hard-earned money, but we forget that society does a lot of work for us, taking the effort out of our daily lives. For example, very few of us grow our own food or make our own clothes. By the same token, it’s getting harder and harder to fix cars yourself. You have to relinquish some of your control and independence by going to a garage and trusting that the mechanic knows his job, is reliable, and won’t take advantage of your vulnerable position. On a bike, the relationship between the factors on which you depend and your sense of control and autonomy is simpler: you depend on food, water, warmth, rest. It helps you get back to basics in terms of human needs, those we usually ‘farm out’ for convenience and speed.
We can also see how your sense of self-worth is connected to your sense of achievement. But if you aim too high, you’re more likely to fail, and generalise that until you feel yourself as a failure. If you say to yourself ‘I conquered Castle Hill yesterday, so tomorrow I shall sprint up Snowdon’, you could fail so badly you injure yourself and set yourself back further than where you started. If, however, you learn to listen to yourself to know what your current level of cycling fitness is and exercise just slightly harder, then you will get fitter. This habit of listening to your own experience leads to a better sense of knowing who you are, what you want, and what you can achieve. This is really important in alleviating the anxiety we might feel when constantly comparing ourselves to others’ standards.
Psychologically, this links to patience, determination, perseverance, and tolerance of failure. You come to accept the need to sustain effort over a long period of time to get results. Cycling is a great way to regain a sense of scale, to accept we cannot do everything all at once, and to feel more comfortable living within your limits. By developing this sense of realistic expectation, we rediscover that humility is not failure, but openness to things bigger than ourselves, that enrich us as we get through them.