"And so, I cycle." How Cycling Improves My Mental Health

"And so, I cycle." How Cycling Improves My Mental Health

Guest contributor Erin Ferguson

This blog post discusses mental health. If you or someone you know is struggling crisis support services can be reached in Australia 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.

When Pedla asked me to write a piece on mental health for Movember, I was very quick to agree to it. I then spent weeks avoiding it, the way you’d awkwardly avoid an ex if you accidentally ran into them at a bar. As the weeks went by, this blog sat like a knot in my stomach, something I needed to do, but I wasn’t really equipped to do. 2022 promised so much after two years of lockdown, but it somehow managed to be one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging years I’ve had. How can I offer any sort of perspective on mental health if there have been numerous times in the last 12 months when I have not been OK?
I want to start with a statistic we’re all used to hearing – the one we hear at our Corporate RUOK? Morning Tea. It sounds something like ‘On-in-six Australians are currently living with anxiety or depression or both”. 3144 people died by suicide in 2021 (ABS, 19 October 2022), and it’s the 15th leading cause of death among Australians. One in two of us will experience a mental disorder at some point in our life.

Mental Health Stats - How cycling helps

8 categories of mental disorders

But what does that actually look like? The World Health Organisation has 8 categories of mental disorders:

  1. Anxiety disorders;
  2. Depression;
  3. Bipolar disorder;
  4. Post traumatic stress disorder;
  5. Schizophrenia;
  6. Eating Disorders;
  7. Disruptive behaviour and dissocial disorders; and
  8. Neurodevelopmental disorders.
Anxiety and depression are obviously the big ticket guys (especially in our workplaces), and I think we have made considerable and commendable progress in destigmatising how we talk about these disorders as well as learning how to recognise the signs that we, our someone we know, might be struggling. However I do think that our collective hyperfocus on Anxiety and Depression means that we don’t consider the varied and often forgotten ways that mental disorders manifest in people. It would be remiss to speak about mental health without urging people to learn to recognise the signs of some of the lesser discussed mental disorders that quietly exist in the community, and have the potential to ravage the mental health of sufferers and those close to them.
I should be very clear that when I speak about mental health in the next few paragraphs, it is my own that I’m talking about. I am not a mental health professional, and nor is my relationship with my own mental health going to be the same as anyone else’s.
In early 2022, for the first time, I sat down with my GP and quietly told her that I thought I needed some help with my mental health. Let me be very clear – 2022 was not the first time in my life I needed help, but it was the first time I sought it. Who knows, maybe if I had gone and asked for help in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, etc I would have learned strategies to better manage my mental health, rather than doing what I did do, which was ignore it, deny it, avoid communicating, change jobs, burn relationships. Nevertheless, my GP was kind and considerate and we had a chat, she agreed I needed some support, and sent me on my way. I sat at home and looked at my mental health plan, cried and then hid it away. But I did go and get help.
I learned a lot of things about myself in therapy – things that I think on some level I already knew, but having someone hold up a mirror to me about my best and worst traits was very illuminating. I’ve made changes, I feel more motivated and some days I feel a bit more in control – it’s a work in progress and I expect it will be for the rest of my life.
I watched Hannah Gadsby’s masterpiece Nannette a few years ago, and if you haven’t watched it yet, there’s some homework. In Nannette, Gadsby speaks of stand-up comedy as relying on tension and release. While I’m no comedian, the concept of ‘tension and release’ perfectly encapsulates the way that cycling contributes to my mental wellbeing. In some ways, at its core, cycling is an activity that revolves around tension and release. The feeling of lightness at the top of a climb, the end of an effort, but also at the bottom of every pedal stroke. It’s a repetitive release of tension from body and mind.
For me, my days create tension. I work a stressful, detail oriented and occasionally confrontational job. Sometimes the stress is motivating, other times it is suffocating. In the absence of relieving that tension, I find I carry some of it with me to the following day. And so, I cycle. At the end of the work day, most days, I try and fit some time in on the trainer to wind down and switch off from work. At the end of the week, I hopefully have weather on my side and can escape a little bit further from home. I can do other things too – I’ll walk my dog or I occasionally have dalliances with running. But I am my best self when I find a way to burn some energy off at the end of the day.
Sometimes the stress is motivating, other times it is suffocating. In the absence of relieving that tension, I find I carry some of it with me to the following day. And so, I cycle.
Cyclist using cycling to get past mental health

Procrastination is what I do best when I’m anxious. I find trivial ways to distract myself for hours, and let my obligations pile up, while I’m paralysed by indecision. Recognising this has been the biggest breakthrough for me this year, and yet I left this article in a ‘to do list’ for many, many weeks. Not because I was afraid of putting pen to paper, but because, honestly, I was pretty scared of doing a ‘mental health reflection’ of the year that was 2022.

I feel that in some aspects, 2022 let us all down. “To precedented times” was the cheers at the end of 2021, but the world has been an often heavy and uncertain place this year. I’ve certainly taken self-imposed media blackouts because the news all started feeling too imposing. Closer to home, I feel like all the “bad shit” that may have otherwise been spread across 2020 and 2021 concentrated itself into this year and that’s been testing for all of us. Learning how to look after our mental health has never been so important as it has in the past couple years.

Recommendations to help with Mental Health

I don’t have any revolutionary recommendations, but I’ll reiterate some familiar ones that have worked for me:

  1. Learn to recognise the signs that you know indicate you’re maybe not doing so well, or perhaps about to be not doing so well. Don’t ignore those signs – and don’t just keep on living and hoping they’ll go away. The interventions that you have to make at this time will hopefully not be so drastic, and you might be able to manage your symptoms more effectively.
  2. Likewise, learn what habits help you care for your mental health – be it exercising, reading, cleaning, using To Do lists, getting good quality sleep – whatever you can do at the front end that’s going to keep you on track, even if you aren’t feeling your best;
  3. If you’re a bit worried about yourself and feel up for a self-check, I recommend the Beyond Blue Anxiety and Depression checklist- https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety-and-depression-checklist-k10.
  4. Have the uncomfortable conversation – be it with a friend or a professional. We all do a lot of lip service that sounds like “you’d see a doctor if you had a physical illness, so it should be the same with mental illness” and that’s completely true, but we often don’t take our own advice. Go to your GP if you’ve noticed a change in yourself – get the help early.
  5. If you’re asking a friend for help, it can also be good practice to check if they’ve got the capacity at that time to be the shoulder for you to lean on.
  6. If you’re someone who’s prepared to ask your friends or family “Are you OK?”, work out what your strategy is if they say ‘no’. Asking people if they are OK is fantastic, but you risk it being lip service if you aren’t prepared to hear someone say they aren’t.
If you’re someone who’s prepared to ask your friends or family “Are you OK?”, work out what your strategy is if they say ‘no’.
Couple of cyclist discussing mental health concerns

Written by Erin Ferguson

Stats from

National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, 2020-21 [Internet].
Australian Bureau of Statistics. [cited 2022Nov21].

Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/mental-health/national-study-mental-health-and-wellbeing/latest-release