Cycling and other forms of exercise have long been connected to physical condition, fitness and positive long-term health outcomes, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it has a beneficial impact on mental health as well.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

3 Jul 2019 - 12:28 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2019 - 12:28 PM

Mental illness manifests itself in many forms and has proven a growing challenge for modern society to deal with as our understanding of the brain has developed in recent years. It’s a fairly straightforward proposition that when you exercise regularly, whether that be by getting out on a bike, running or participating in team sport, you are more likely to be in good physical condition.

Scientists are increasingly finding that regular exercise also has an effect on your mental wellbeing as well, with many studies looking at the relationship between physical exertion and mental illness. 

Mental illness is common, in Australia affecting around one in five people every year and about 45 per cent of the population at some point during their lifetime.

Cycling Central talked with Dr Simon Rosenbaum, NHMRC Research Fellow within the School of Psychiatry at the UNSW Sydney and research fellow at the Black Dog Institute, an expert in the connections between regular exercise and mental health.

“All the evidence we have is that exercise is very strongly associated with positive effects to mental health,” said Dr. Rosenbaum. “That’s true of clinical examples where people are experiencing mental illness, be it traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, whatever it is. Also, in the general population, where they are experiencing poor mood without a diagnosis and getting a benefit.”

“Again, the evidence is very strong that no matter where you sit on the spectrum, you can get a benefit from engaging in activity, including cycling.”

The effect of Dr Rosenbaum’s statement covers a large proportion of those who fall under the blanket of mental illness. That includes patients with a diagnosed condition from a doctor, and those describing symptoms and feelings that society gives the general label of ‘feeling depressed’.

The connection between exercise and improved mental health is one that is being recognised more and more, with health and treatment professionals more likely to include exercise as part of patient regimes to progress towards better health outcomes.

“There’s more awareness, more interest and more services available to actually refer people to so they can get sufficient support that is needed to get active,” said Dr. Rosenbaum. “The frustrating thing is that people who are going to benefit the most are the least likely to have access to appropriate services.

“We kind of know what it takes and how to motivate people to get help, but it’s the lack of support and services that are the biggest barrier. It is generally changing though which is a positive.

“I’d be hesitant to talk about it replacing medication and I think it’s important that we don’t stigmatise people that require medication as part of their treatment. Exercise is something that should be added to normal care and that is what the evidence is very clear about. It’s not a replacement but should be a part of standard care.”

With the positive health outcomes associated with exercise well known, the next step is bringing information to society at large and health professionals about the benefits, as well as raising money to allow those in need to be able to access services which will help them. To this end, Dr. Rosenbaum has participated in a number of extremely long rides to raise funds and awareness in concert with the Black Dog Institute.

“It’s been an amazing thing to be a part of. I’m not a natural cyclist by any means and I struggled, but being part of the group and part of team helps you push through. What looks like an individual sport is very much a team effort and everyone helps everyone else get through onto the next point and to the end of the day. It’s a very special thing to be a part of.”

“Part of it is awareness and generating that and part of it is research to find meaningful and useful solutions to reduce the burden of mental illness.”

Participants come from all walks of life. Recently, SBS’s cycling presenter Mike Tomalaris completed a long trip from Sydney to Surfer's Paradise in support of Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off the Streets program, which houses and supports homeless and disadvantaged children.

The ride itself was challenging both physically and mentally for the participants, with anecdotes of perseverance and overcoming obstacles that are seemingly insurmountable functioning as an allegory for severe mental illness.

Dr. Rosenbaum is a veteran of several of these long-ride events and spoke about the challenge and the benefits of putting oneself through the ordeal.

“There’s an increasing number of these events happening and people are turning to these sort of extreme activities partly I think as a way of setting goals for themselves personally,” said Dr. Rosenbaum. “Being able to achieve those goals and do something together that is a significant challenge.”

“It does provide people a goal, a sense of accomplishment and all the camaraderie that comes with it as well. Being in close confines with people over that time and sharing goals, sharing the journey, that’s really important.”

“When you’re riding next to someone for 100 kilometres, it gives you the opportunity to talk and it breaks down that mental stigma, to get people talking and start those conversations.”

The evidence is mounting that tackling mental health issues alone in a room without any exertion isn’t the best way to achieve positive outcomes. By talking about the positive benefits of exercise on mental health and participating in good levels of activity, you’re keeping both the body and brain healthy.

Teachers, explore the benefits of sport and exercise in your classes with SBS Learn’s curriculum-aligned and ready-to-use resources. Made by teachers, for teachers, get started with our First Gear resource on staying safe and healthy with cycling.