The powerful links between cycling and mental health were laid bare at a talk last night at which three speakers revealed how much their lives had been turned around by taking up the sport.
This was "Bikes, brains and the workplace", a Club Peloton talk at the Printworks in Canada Water hosted by British Land, chaired by trustee of the London Cycling Campaign Neil Webster and featuring Paralympian Rachel Morris, cyclist and mental health project coordinator Sarah Strong and Equipe Cycle Coaching and Development Coach for Scottish Cycling, Richard Lord.
Morris described how, having begun as a runner, she lost both legs at 17 over five surgeries as her disease returned. She had felt her identity had been stripped away, but it had also provided an impetus to further her career as a hand-cyclist, winning gold in 2012, and now embarking on a new challenge with the GB Nordic ski team.
"Without sport, I would be a very different person, or probably not even be here," she said. She had a physical buzz from cycling as the first girl to get a hand-bike in the UK and ride competitively before taking up rowing – and taking the world record and gold at Rio. "Being on my bike is still one of the most important things for me," she said. "I love my bike and I would not be without it, at all."
Strong told the audience how cycling had helped her get over clinical depression and anxiety. "It was very much a turning point. I would never say it saved my life but it made a huge change and ticks so many boxes for me in terms of exercise, improving the social circle, learning about a new interest but also a chance of escaping my surroundings and out into the countryside."
A housemate invited her to attend mountain bike races and ended up helping organise events for the next nine years, and then riding in them (and now owning six bikes). But a key move was finding out what her condition was, which enabled her to do something about it, said Strong. Although it is still a difficult subject for people to raise, especially in the workplace, it was important to look at issues holistically and recognise that "the bike won’t do it all", Strong added.
Finally, Lord told how turning to bikes and creating a disciplined way of life that included a strict diary of exercise, no alcohol, a SAD lamp and daily cycling had helped take him away from a spell where he had contemplated suicide, having lost his mother in an accident when he was just 10.
Lord had felt talking to his family at that time difficult. He was living in a new town, and started to recoil from life, his mind later feeling "elsewhere" when his body was at work. Furthermore, his father began writing poetry, and three years ago wrote one particular poem about his late wife, and the energy in those words hit Lord "like a bus", leading to suicidal thoughts.
But being father to two young girls proved his salvation, along with a doctor, counselling and getting back out on the bike. This he did by slowly getting "in control of his mornings", planning rides the night before, one day at a time. "Cycling has just been a really invaluable part of my life," he said. "It has been a fantastic medication for me, and I also really enjoy the mindfulness, the meditation that I get from it… It’s given me the life that I never really had."
The event included a question and answer session with the audience, including over whether the NHS should "prescribe" cycling – better links were surely needed between the health industry and bikes, with "lifestyle advisers", perhaps; more community events like Parkrun; and more low-cost gym memberships available.
The discussion covered how mental health issues show themselves; how each panellist controls the anger situations that might emerge from dealing with traffic; injuries and accidents; and whether or not cold water therapy can help - as a large amount of research indicates it could - with mental health. "After training, one of the big bonuses of having no legs is that I fit in a freezer box," joked Morris.
Webster also presented findings of a short survey of attendees at the event: 40% of participants said their main interest in cycling was exercise; 50% had had some form of mental condition, compared to the 25% general population average (recently raised to a third); and 60% felt cycling to work makes them more punctual and productive. People also felt they would much rather ride than attend a workshop to deal with mental health issues. Every participant said that their mental state improved after a ride, and that exercise improved depression or mood.