How mountain biking can improve your mental fitness
© Jean-Baptiste Liautard
Mountain biking has numerous benefits for your physical fitness, but have you thought about the benefits to your mental health?
Mental health is an extremely important subject and one that has been getting increasing coverage over recent years, and rightly so. Mental health issues can affect anyone and come in various guises. Most of us will either have experienced one of these issues or will know someone who has, whether that person talks about it or not. With the multitude of stresses in modern life, it’s more important than ever to find ways to cope with these issues.
That’s where mountain biking comes in; this adrenaline-fuelled, action-packed and stoke-inducing sport has all the necessary ingredients to help people cope with mental health issues. Here are seven reasons why mountain biking is so damn good for you!
1. Feel-good hormones
Mountain biking in its most basic form is exercise, and when you exercise you release endorphins, the feel-good hormones which lift our mood and reduce stress and anxiety. Not only this, but exercise also teaches your body to deal with raised cortisol levels – cortisol is the stress hormone – so by dealing better with this you can reduce stress. There is even evidence to suggest that exercise reduces the risk of depression by up to 20 per cent.
2. The Great Outdoors
Getting in touch with nature has significant benefits for your mental health and wellbeing. A lot of research has gone into the subject in recent years, and there's now even a name for using nature as therapy: Ecotherapy. This is emerging as a treatment for mental health issues and especially for depression. Luckily, as mountain bikers, you get this as part of the deal. Those hours you spend out on the trails are helping you connect to nature and get away from the stresses of day-to-day life. Just don’t connect too closely with the tree on the other side of that jump!
When you’re trapped in your own head, with thoughts rattling around, it can be easy to lose perspective on what is important in life. Being out in the mountains, in the forest or on the moors can remind you how big the world is, and how many things there are in life to be grateful for; wildlife, the air we breathe and our own lives. Equally, our egocentricity can be reduced by awareness of something much bigger than ourselves. It's good to be reminded that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
Meditation can be defined as a practice where an individual focuses their mind on a particular object, thought or activity to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be sat cross legged burning incense to do this. Just by getting out on your bike, letting your body take control of where you're going and letting your mind wander over thoughts or be completely clear is a wonderful type of meditation. It's the perfect way to reduce the constant noise in your mind, with so many thoughts buzzing around and lots of negativity. It's important to give the mind a rest and not think; that way you can come back refreshed and with new clarity.
Imagine you are battling anxiety; you have a few good days, maybe even weeks or months where you feel strong and happy. Then anxiety strikes again, knocking you down and filling you with fear. It can feel like failure, like you’ll never get past this issue. By working towards something, feeling yourself improving and finally achieving it you can rebuild that belief in yourself. How amazing do you feel when you conquer that feature, nail that jump or top out on that beast of a climb? It’s an achievement, something you’ve worked towards and finally overcome. Those little wins remind you that you can do whatever you put your mind to.
Even with the work to remove the stigma of mental health, it can still be a lonely and scary place, so having a good support network of family and friends is invaluable. Just the fact that they are there to spend time with, to take your mind off stresses for a while and most importantly to make you laugh, is more than enough in most cases.
The mountain biking community is second-to-none, with a powerful online presence, social riding groups dotted around the country and a growing race/event scene, so there’s always something to get involved in. Even if you’re not comfortable in large groups, there are groups on Facebook where you can chat to fellow riders and meet up for a ride with one or two of them, and there are even plenty of choices for women-only groups.
One of the terrible things about mental health issues is how they can suck the joy out of life, and make days seem bleak. Having something to look forward to like getting out on your bike can be a real booster. When you’ve experienced those endorphins, the freedom and the community of mountain biking, you can’t help but look forward to the next time. It reawakens the joy in life and brings hope for the future.