Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cycling as Stress Relief

Bubbly Bike (Honk Fest, Cambridge MA)
When a friend told me he was “too stressed to ride lately,” that struck me as dissonant at first. We think of cycling as a stress-reducing activity. So if you’re feeling stressed that is all the more reason to go on a bike ride. But the more I considered it, the more I came to realise that the relationship between cycling and stress is not linear for me either.

When I'm stressed out, cycling does help. It clears my head, slows down my racing thoughts, improves my mood. It regulates my appetite and sleep patterns. And when sufficiently strenuous, it plain exhausts me into a state of near-catatonic relaxation. I have never been on a bike ride where I started out feeling stressed and didn't feel better afterward. And knowing this, my use of cycling for stress relief has become habitual. Feeling frazzled? Under pressure? Bad mood? Off I go on a bike ride. There, that fixed it.

There is, however, a threshold beyond which this doesn't work. Because stress, when it's bad enough, can demobilise. And this creates a Catch 22 situation: You're too stressed out to engage in an activity that can relief that stress. At that point, it can become a vicious cycle, with the stress building up and making you all the less likely to get on the bike. 

So what do you do if that happens? One solution could be to try and catch it early - convincing yourself to ride anyway before things snowball. Of course that's easier said than done. And personally, I don't like to force myself to get on the bike when I don't feel like it. So if I'm feeling too stressed to ride, then I just don't, and if that results in a cycling-lite phase of some weeks so be it. As always, I know I'll come out of it, waking up one morning and feeling the need for the bike before my eyes are even fully open. 

There may be times when we are too stressed to ride. And there are times the bike can wash the stress away better than any other remedy. Hopefully the latter overshadows the former.


  1. First of all, I'm so happy you are back - you have been missed. I wanted to send you an email with some words of appreciation as well as encouragement but couldn't find your email address from a past exchange.

    I suffer from depression at times and it's an even worse Catch 22 in that situation. So it's nice to have a riding partner for those periods.

    I mountain bike a lot too which often takes a lot more concentration. So when I want to contemplate a situation or decision I like to ride my road bike. And when I want to escape I ride mountain.

  2. I frequently find cycling stress-productive but do it anyways.

  3. This makes sense. It sounds counterintuitive but I've felt it too. Especially when I WANT to go do big rides but can only slip off for unsatisfying 30 minute raids. I don't get much out of riding when I have to force myself to go back to the house or work.Or when I figure out that the reason everyone seems so annoyed and impatient with me is that I've been out riding every evening for a week. I think guilt(real or imagined) ladles on the stress more than just about anything else and takes the fun out of riding for a bit.

    But like you say, the desire and need always comes back and fires me up again, well, so far.

    I wonder how I would react to getting badly hit a couple of times though. That might be something completely different and I only hope the desire would win out in the end. A big bike shaped hole in my life would seem like a death I think...


  4. First off, long time reader, first time poster. I totally agree with you on all of this. Life just really kicks us down and sometimes you just want to lay in bed listening to really bad music. (Or maybe that's just me . . . ) I find that if I can get back on that bike at some point or other, even if it's to go a few blocks to buy cat food, it's still a HUGE stress reliever and the whole ride I'll be wondering why I didn't do this earlier and get out of my rut sooner!

  5. years of depression and anxiety...it's an escape.

    1. More than an escape it's a legitimate treatment. The author, as a psychologist by trade, should know that all too well!

    2. Well, I am not a psychotherapist. I am (was) a research psychologist in a field unrelated to mood disorders.

      That said, there are a few ways in which exercise is known to help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. One of these is by releasing chemicals that counteract the chemical imbalances associated with depression and anxiety. Another is by restoring a sense of control, cause-and-effect, and general structure, if done regularly. There is more to it, but it gets complicated. What makes it more complicated still, is that some newer research shows a relationship between using exercise to treat depression and anxiety, and exercise addiction - which raises its own questions.

      All in all, the idea of exercise as a full-on formal clinical treatment for mood disorders is debatable - though it is widely agreed to be helpful in many circumstances.

    3. Movement is good. Prevents thinking.

    4. My personal experience tells me that cycling alleviates the symptoms of my depression better then the medication I used to take. If I keep my long-term weekly average above about 150km I find that I'm a lot less likely to have a depressive episode. When illness or general life circumstances keep me off the bike for extended periods I find the black dog comes to visit.
      As for exercise addiction: I'm certainly no addict. I still often have to drag myself onto the bike when I'm tired or it's cold, because I know the consequences of letting it slip.
      I'd rather battle an icy headwind after 3 hours sleep than risk the return of my depressed state.

  6. I recall that as a young racing cyclist missing a day's training ride was quite stressful - now I'm older & wiser I can see how counter-productive that was, but I still get grumpy when life gets in the way of my cycling.

  7. Sometimes stress is a time stress or scarcity that means one is too overloaded to take the time to bike. If you are so overwhelmed with worry, it does tax the mind as well as energy. Cycling has always been great for stress and anxiety, but sometimes even biking won't help. Sometimes it even reminds me of why I am so stressed, riding an old bike unable to afford to fix up my other bike, get a decent bike. I rely on biking to get everywhere, so I can't escape actually biking, but if I was less stressed about day to day survival stuff, I'd be more likely to be out riding for the fun of it which in turn would relieve stress! So, yeah, it's complicated.
    I have been getting in a tizzy lately being so anxious about stuff and was feeling very poorly the other night. I had to run some errands so did get the bike out in the dark and by the end, I was smiling again and felt so much better.

  8. "...this creates a Catch 22 situation: You're too stressed out to engage in an activity that can relief that stress. At that point, it can become a vicious cycle"

    This is an eerie summary of how I once stopped cycling... for nearly 4 years. Thankful to be back on the bike since March 2013.

  9. It certainly is. I don't race because that would cause enough stress again and my cycling buddies don't seem to understand that. Riding my bike is like going on vacation every time.

  10. "At that point, it can become a vicious cycle,"

    Oh come now Velouria, don't blame the bicycle — it's just an inanimate object without a moral component.

    But seriously, welcome back! I've missed your frequent visits and have been sending warm and supportive thoughts in your direction.
    ~ David

  11. I find that anything creative is great stress relief. It connects one to something outside of oneself, requires being in the moment, and energizes. Biking can work for some but not others and I see how it can add to it...It's daunting!

  12. I ride for recreation/exercise on the weekends or occasionally before work, but I also ride TO work and for shopping. If I felt too stressed to ride in these instances, my alternative would be to drive to work and the market, which is orders of magnitude MORE stressful for me. So I can understand not going out for recreational rides due to stress (or, more accurately, depression), I find it hard to imagine electing to drive rather than ride for any psychological reason.

  13. Was talking with a friend of mine about "slowing down in winter". He said after 8 or 9 months of riding or riding hard through the year, it's ok to dial it back or slow down or give it a little rest, especially when it's 20 degrees (F) outside.
    The ride in the morning has certain types of stress for me. I never quite get out the door as early as I like. It ends up being a stupid race in the morning (Cat 6 as Mr. Bikesnob says), then I forget sometimes we are surrounded by assassins and every taxi and I-Pod zombie becomes your enemy. On those marginal weather days when I take the train in, I get more mad at myself for not having ridden the bike.
    Sometimes though, it is good to "cross train", break out of a shell of routine or whatever and try to de-stress some other way. I almost always feel better after a mile when I push myself out the door and get warmed up. Even if after kvetching in bed after the alarm, putting on the riding stuff makes the day feel like it will improve.
    Eventually the feeling of: "As always, I know I'll come out of it, waking up one morning and feeling the need for the bike before my eyes are even fully open." wins out and all is right with the world.

    And Pam B - eventually the right time will come again and you will know.

    Good Luck,

    Victor K.

  14. while cycling today i felt a pain in my chest....my stress level multiplied!!

  15. I find in high stress a short ride is the answer.

  16. Commuting daily, even with the rush of the London traffic, I find the ride de-stressing and a nice split between work and home. Each to their own I guess! Stressed? Cup of tea (so English!), bath, or ride. Or combine all three!

  17. Gross motor exercise as early in the day as possible is best. There is riding and there is riding. For some, riding suggests a substantial amount of time and energy. When in a funk, a short ride to the corner store may be just the ticket.

  18. Slightly-unrelated but interesting nontheless:


  19. I feel like exercise in general is a great way to relieve stress. I've always been a huge fan of running when I get really stressed out, because I always feel so great after. I don't know what it is about exercising, but I highly recommend it if you're stressed out.