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Can Cycling Help Tackle UK's Mental Health Crisis?

According to the BBC, at any one time, one sixth of the population in England between the ages of 16 and 64 suffers from a mental health problem.

Britain seems to be on a verge of a nationwide mental health crisis - and things are only getting worse.

If you’ve been following the news, you might’ve seen a recent report that, over the last year, 1 in 4 people with acute mental health problems were unable to get help from care services.

And while Theresa May recently pledged record investments in mental health services, advocates warn that the funding promised is deficient, and may be partially misallocated.

Pedalling Forward

Politics aside - how do we, as a society, choose to fight the mental health epidemic? As it stands, drugs seem to be the most common weapon, with medication for anxiety, depression, OCD and panic attacks more than doubling in the UK over the past decade.

‘But what about cycling!’ - he exclaims naively. After all, multiple studies have indeed shown that aerobic exercises, such as walking, jogging, and - yes - cycling are both beneficial for mental health, and often blissfully ignored by mental health professionals.

According to one study from 2006: “The importance of exercise is not adequately understood or appreciated by patients and mental health professionals alike. Evidence has suggested that exercise may be an often-neglected intervention in mental health care.”

Now, I’m obviously not about to tout cycling as some sort of mental health panacea. But given the general state of things, I do think it’s a valid question whether aerobic exercises - and cycling in particular - should find a place in our national mental health strategy.

The Usual Suspects

Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with almost 8% of the population fitting the bill. So how could cycling help?

According to mentalhealth.org.uk, physical activity such as cycling can be used ‘as a standalone treatment for depression, or in combination with medication and/or psychological therapy. ‘

A long-term study that looked into the relation between one’s level of physical activity and risk of subsequent depression found that those highly active were at a significantly lower risk for depression, even when adjusted for other (socio-economic, health etc.) factors.

Another study focused on the efficacy of a single session of exercise for depressive patients, by putting subjects on a stationary bike for just 15 minutes. As you might’ve guessed, ‘the cortisol level and subjective depressive symptoms significantly decreased after the exercise session.’

Cycling in nature can be particularly effective, as evidence suggests that exposure to natural environments can benefit one’s mental health in its own right. “Proximity to greenspace has been associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety” says a 2014 study, “while interacting with nature can improve cognition for children with attention deficit and individuals with depression.”

And when it comes to anxiety in particular, a 2001 study found that aerobic exercise not only alleviates generalized anxiety, but may even help reduce the so-called ‘anxiety sensitivity’, a known precursor to panic attacks.

Under Pressure

Recent research by PWC found that 1 in 3 UK employees are working with anxiety, depression or stress. And seeing how we as a nation lost 12.5 million working days due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/17, there’s also a massive financial incentive to find the solution.

For Londoners in particular, transit seems to be a major trigger - according to an international poll, London commuters suffer more stress than those in any major European city, some even rating the worry of the journey as worse than the job itself.

It’s no secret that physical activity bumps up your body’s endorphin production, which helps relieve tension and elevate your mood. And as a recent study published by the International Journal of Workplace Health Management confirmed, “employees who cycled in had less stress than those who travelled by car” during the first 45 minutes of work - a strong predictor of how you’ll feel throughout the rest of the day.

P.S. Cycling in London is not just healthier and better for the environment, but can also even be cheaper and faster than public transit, as I explain in one of my previous posts.

Dead-End Street

So what does all of this mean for the role of cycling in our nation’s discourse about mental health?

Well, it’s hard to say. As much as it pains me to admit, there are some valid reasons why UK still hasn’t embraced cycling in the same way as Denmark or the Netherlands - an all but certain prerequisite to any sort of nationwide, cycling-specific mental health strategy.

To do that, we’d first need to re-imagine our entire national cycling infrastructure, significantly improve road safety and alter our regulatory framework to protect the most vulnerable road users. In other words, far too many things to fit in one blog post.

Until then however, using cycling to combat the mental health epidemic in any meaningful way simply seems implausible. But it sure looks like it’d be worth it.

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