Your Brain on Biking: How Cycling Can Improve Your Mental Health


While most people are aware that riding bicycles offers health and environmental benefits, they might not be aware of the positive effects cycling can have on their mental health. While many people ride bicycles as one way to get in better physical shape and to adopt a healthier lifestyle, they can also enjoy mental health benefits from cycling on a regular basis.

When you ride your bicycle for 30 or more minutes several times per week, it can improve your ability to reason, plan, and remember. Cycling has also been shown to positively impact your emotional and mental health and fight anxiety and depression. Cycling allows you to relax and free your mind from daily stressors whatever they might be.

While cycling offers many physical, mental, and environmental benefits, there are also risks involved with riding bicycles. People who are struck by vehicles while riding bikes have a risk of suffering serious injuries or being killed in bicycle accidents. However, as long as people take proper safety precautions, including always wearing properly fitted helmets, riding on bicycle paths whenever available, remaining alert at all times, and following the traffic laws when they ride on streets, the risks involved with riding bicycles do not outweigh the many mental health benefits that are detailed below.

Biking Improves Your Mood

People who regularly cycle often report that they experience a “high” similar to that experienced by runners. Bicycling has been shown to have a positive impact on people’s moods while increasing a feeling of accomplishment and wellbeing. When you ride your bicycle, your body releases neurotransmitters that help to relieve pain, including serotonin and dopamine. Riding bicycles also causes your brain to release a surge of endorphins, which help to buoy your mood and make you feel better.

In a study reported in the international journal Transportation Research in 2019, researchers found a link between habitual bicycle riding, mood, and positive psychosocial behavior. The researchers studied 1,131 residents of Brisbane, Australia, measuring their moods and levels of self-esteem in relation to regular cycling. They found that people who regularly rode bicycles reported more positive self-concepts, a greater degree of self-actualization, and more positive overall moods than people who did not cycle. The researchers recommended that governments should invest more in cycling infrastructure to protect the safety of cyclists and to encourage more people to choose cycling over other forms of transportation.

Biking Decreases Stress

A related mental health benefit to mood improvements is that cycling also helps to decrease stress in people who regularly ride bicycles. People face many stressors during the day at both home and their jobs. When you regularly ride a bicycle, your body’s ability to regulate cortisol, the hormone produced when you experience stress, is improved.

In a study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, researchers from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University compared people who traveled to work by bicycle versus people who traveled by car. They found that the cyclists experienced much lower levels of stress during the first 45 minutes of their workdays than those who had commuted by car. Riding your bicycle regularly might help to reduce your levels of stress and provide you with an overall sense of wellbeing.

Biking Lowers the Risk of Depression and Anxiety

A link between cycling and other types of aerobic exercise with a reduction in the risk of depression and anxiety has been shown in multiple studies. People who suffer from depression have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Among people who are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, depression can significantly worsen the prognosis.

In one study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2015, people who were diagnosed with depression showed statistically significant clinical improvements in their cardiovascular and respiratory functioning. This indicates that people who already are diagnosed with depression might enjoy positive health benefits and a reduced risk of developing heart disease might result from getting plenty of exercise while cycling. Since bicycling also improves mood and releases endorphins as previously described, cycling might also reduce the symptoms of depression by making people feel better overall.

Cycling is also believed to decrease the risk of anxiety and its symptoms. People who suffer from anxiety disorders might find some relief with regular cycling. In a study published in the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health in 2018, researchers found that people who suffered from panic disorder showed a lasting decrease in anxiety symptoms in psychological evaluations with regular aerobic exercise.

The researchers found that those who engaged in aerobic exercise for 12 sessions also showed lowered scores on the Beck Depression Inventory scale. This indicates that choosing to cycle regularly might reduce your risk of developing depression or anxiety and help to relieve symptoms if you are currently experiencing either of these disorders.

Biking Benefits Physical Health

Bicycling offers numerous physical health benefits. Improving your physical health can also boost your mental well-being. Some of the physical health benefits of regular cycling include all of the following:

  • Helps to Get to and maintain a healthy weight
  • Strengthens your leg muscles
  • Easy for people new to regular exercise
  • Improves the strength of your core muscles
  • Helps to reduce side effects of cancer
  • Helps to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle, including type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease
  • Improves your posture, coordination, and balance
  • Is low-impact and easy on the joints

The physical and mental health benefits can help people to enjoy healthier and happier lives. However, it is important to be safe whenever you ride your bicycle. Avoid wearing loose clothing that could get caught in the bicycle’s chain. Wear clothing that is brightly colored to increase your visibility to motorists. Always wear a properly fitted helmet whenever you ride along with wrist guards, knee and elbow shields, and proper shoes. Keep both of your hands on the handlebars at all times except when you need to signal. Make sure you know the rules of the road and follow them.

Cyclists should always ride on bicycle paths or bicycle lanes whenever they are available. If you must ride with traffic, ride in the farthest right traffic lane except when you need to turn left. Use hand signals to signal before you turn, and watch what the motorists around you are doing to give you more time to react in case of danger. If you ride at night, your bicycle should be equipped with a headlamp, taillight, and reflectors to make you more visible. Finally, never ride your bicycle after you have been drinking, and do not listen to music on headphones or check your smartphone to help prevent a bicycle accident.

Biking Enhances Memory

Another great benefit of regular cycling is an improvement in your memory. As people grow older, their cognition and memory show declines. Cognitive and memory deficits might result in functional impairments that might be severe enough to require people to move into assisted living or skilled nursing facilities. Fortunately, people might be able to preserve their cognitive functioning and working memory by engaging in regular cycling. This might allow people to protect their independence for much longer than they might otherwise be able to do so.

In a study published by the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research in 2013, researchers looked at the relationship between cognitive functioning and cycling. Ten healthy male adults participated in the study. Before exercising, the men took eight cognitive functioning tests in four categories of cognition, including memory, planning, reasoning, and concentration. They then rode stationary bicycles for 30 minutes and took post-tests after their heart rates had returned to within 10% of normal resting levels. In the post-test, the participants showed marked improvements in memory, planning, and reasoning. The researchers did not find any difference in concentration abilities. This research is good news if you regularly cycle. It means that you could be improving your memory while you ride your bicycle.

Biking Boosts Creativity

Whether you work in a creative field or simply need to rely on your ability to come up with novel approaches that could boost your company’s productivity and efficiency, you likely sometimes find yourself in a rut. If you experience a block and need to rejuvenate your creative thinking abilities, you might want to head out the door for a bicycle ride.

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports found a link between regular physical activity and executive functioning, including the ability to think creatively. Riding your bicycle each day might help to boost your creativity. Since most cycling happens outdoors, you might derive an additional boost of creativity. Research published in the journal PLOS One found a relationship between being immersed in nature outdoors and an improvement in creative reasoning.

Biking Supports Brain Health

A final benefit of cycling is its support of brain health. Your overall brain health is directly linked to your mental health. Improving the health of your brain can also help to improve your mental health. In a study reported in PLOS One, researchers investigated the effect of outdoor cycling on the cognitive functioning of 100 older adults ages 50 to 83. Out of the 100, 26 did not cycle, 36 cycled outdoors, and 38 used electric bikes. Both the electric bicycle and the traditional bicycle riders showed improvements in executive functioning and feelings of well-being, which could positively affect the cognitive functioning and mental health of bicyclists.

Cycling offers many physical and psychological benefits and might increase the years you can be independent. When you cycle regularly and make sure to follow safety precautions whenever you ride, you might feel more positive and enjoy a greater sense of physical and mental wellbeing.