How cycling helped my mental health

Photo by Helio Dilolwa on Unsplash

I’ll be honest, exercise and sports were never really my cup of tea. Ever since I was young, I always associated any form of physical activity (except dance) with PE classes where I always felt self-conscious and ashamed of my body and capabilities. Although no one outright shamed me, there was an implicit feeling of inferiority. Being picked last for every activity, having the boys on my team scream at me for not being able to catch a ball properly, or just finish last on the yearly mile runs. Over the years, I just grew averse to exercise and sports. 

To those of you that used to say, “well, why don’t you just lose weight, that won’t make you feel so insecure then,” I say, “well, I used to feel ashamed to do the very exercises that would make me lose weight.” It’s essentially a trap. You want to do well, but with every attempt, you feel judged and unmotivated to keep on going, and eventually, nothing changes. 

After graduating from high school and separating myself from my known circles and environment, I started experimenting with different forms of sports or exercise that I might enjoy. In university, I went into some drop-in Zumba, Spin, and Yoga classes. I really enjoyed Zumba because of the dance element in it, and it always had me dripping in sweat afterwards. Spin was an interesting discovery for me. I was always intimidated by spin because of how intense it looked from the outside, but after a few classes, I really enjoyed the rush it gave me. Even though I enjoyed these two, I didn’t find myself motivated to keep going regularly and went maybe once or twice a month. 

During the pandemic, when I returned to Singapore for nearly two years, I found two new hobbies, like many others around the world: cycling and hiking. A huge credit for getting me into these goes to a dear friend of mine who made sure to drag me out of the house and get moving. 

I live very close to ECP and would always go on walks along the beach. But I never cycled along there. Just like the “great cycle boom of 2020” as BBC coined it, I went to the nearest Decathlon and bought a cycle. My friend and I would get together a few times to cycle along ECP, stop for some McDonald’s halfway, and cycle home. After the first few days of going out, I couldn’t keep myself at home. I itched to keep going for more cycle rides. I went on a few rides in the other direction towards Marina Bay Sands and the Bayfront area. I was amazed at the distance I was able to achieve. I saw myself cycling 15-20 kilometres every ride. Sure, it was blazing hot every time, and most of the time it was the same two routes, but I couldn’t stop. 

You see, I was experiencing numerous benefits of not just cycling, but of aerobic exercise in general. First of all, I was outdoors by the sea which is extremely relaxing, both the fresh air and the view of the crashing waves next to me. The steady pace of the cycle and paying attention to the road ensured that my mind didn’t wander and stayed focused on the action. It kept me present in that moment. The solitude and space to focus on me was another significant element. I made time in my day to cycle and wanted to go out every day to cycle to immerse myself in this pleasant, soothing, and engaging environment and activity. I was focused on myself and my experience only, nothing else.  

There have been many studies done on cycling to explore the various health benefits it encourages, physically and mentally. 

On a physical level, it’s an aerobic exercise that can be done at individual preferential levels. Countless studies have demonstrated that people that consistently did regular aerobic exercise had improved respiratory health, heart health, lowers risk of cancers, builds up immune systems, and releases endorphins making you happy and satisfied. Because cycling has elements of resistance and strength, it builds muscle. It is low impact so anyone can do it at their own level and intensity, making it much more accessible than other exercises. 

On a mental health and wellbeing level, the release of endorphins is a big factor. Endorphins improve self-esteem. When you are able to see that you are doing something good for you, and when you experience the benefits, you enjoy it more, and it makes you feel good while doing it. This results in you wanting to continue it as well. Self-esteem issues are an enormous hindrance to a lot of people when exercising, like me, and so this is definitely something I saw improve in me as I continued regular cycling. Studies have shown that cycling boosts creativity, even just 30 minutes of it. One reason they suggest is that it relaxes your body and brain, which makes space for individual focus, and that leads to an increase in creativity and planning. Boost in creativity, increased focus, higher self-esteem, and space for reflection helps to generally relieve stress and anxiety as well. 

I am not a pro cycler, nor do I see myself being one soon. I choose the safer and perhaps boring routes for cyclists that want more challenges. But, this small routine of stepping out for a short ride in the sun and by the sea has helped me enormously. I don’t cycle for the exercise element of it. Sure, the calories burnt helps make up an excuse to eat another scoop of ice cream in the day, but it’s not the main intention. I cycle because of how it makes me feel. I’m sure that like me, a lot of you might one day find that one activity that you genuinely enjoy doing, and it just so happens to have a lot of benefits as well. 


One response to “How cycling helped my mental health”

  1. Manisha Sarkar avatar
    Manisha Sarkar

    Very nicely expressed. I got connectd with your writing in the very first paragraph and read the whole story sat one sitting . Your style of story telling is very interesting. Congratulations.


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