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Mental health and wellbeing

Elizabeth Eden

NHS Southwark Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Southwark Council have consulted on a draft strategy for mental health and wellbeing.

We’ve written a response about why cycling is good for your mental wellbeing, and how it can specifically enrich the lives of people living with mental illness.

Get involved

If you or someone you know want help getting started cycling, contact us at southwark ‘at’ lcc.org.uk. We’re happy to support you with it through any barriers of mental ill-health (though so far none of our volunteers are professionals in that area!)

Or if you want to volunteer with us, or collaborate as a mental health practitioner, we’d also love to hear from you.

Our submission

We would like to see active travel incorporated into the Mental Health Strategy, with physical activity not being separated from healthier high streets. We lay out below the evidence that active travel is beneficial to mental wellbeing, and what changes we would like to see.

Benefits of cycling for mental wellbeing: the research

The link between physical activity and mental wellbeing is well documented. Activity increases levels of serotonin and dopamine production, as well as endorphins, so are likely to improve subjective mood and to reduce anxiety and stress. These are all benefits which are reported repeatedly by people who cycle to get to the shops or work, or for leisure. One study found that after just 15 minutes of cycling on a stationary bike, a group of people with diagnosed depressive conditions saw a decline in their cortisol levels.

Scientists have known for some time that people who engage in regular activity generally have more grey matter and there is much research being carried out on the effects of activity on the reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s in older people (in one study, it was shown that older people who had been and were regularly active ‘reduced the risk for cognitive impairment 2-fold’). But a study in 2015 also showed that regular cycling improved white matter (which aids brain connectivity) in both healthy subjects and patients with schizophrenia.

Cycling in particular, as opposed to other activities like walking, is thought, in part, to improve mental health because it is a more ‘complex’ activity, requiring focus and co-ordination, but the rhythm of cycling is also thought to be beneficial in terms of mood enhancement.  Being outdoors, particularly in green surroundings, also impacts on feelings of well-being positively.

Benefits of cycling for mental wellbeing: our experience

Various members of Southwark Cyclists have reported being able to travel by bike when they or their family members are unable to use alternatives due to mental health concerns. Whether the issue is proximity to other people, anxiety about missing a connection, or fear of panic attacks while driving, cycling offers a level of flexibility and freedom in transport matched only by walking. When cycling, you are in total control of when you set off and when you stop. Going places in your own time and at your own pace is cheering and empowering.

Furthermore, most people consider cycling fun enough to do for its own sake, like walking. This makes it easier to attempt outings with mental health concerns. Even if you can’t face the activity you had planned when you arrive, the journey was not a waste when you’ve had a nice cycle ride – which makes it easier to take that first step out of the door.

Active travel also increases community participation, with more community members able to interact in public and without prior organisation. (You bump into people you know if you and they walk and cycle regularly, as all members of Southwark Cyclists can testify!) It helps elderly residents in particular maintain contact with their community, enabling them to be more active for longer (see our submission to the previous “Ageing Well” consultation).

Including active travel in mental wellbeing planning

The Draft Strategy contains very little about helping people be more active in their daily lives, with only a brief mention of “exercise”. “Exercise”, a physical activity undertaken for its own sake, is an additional burden on someone struggling to cope with daily life with e.g. anxiety and depression. Active travel, by contrast, can make life easier. Even the section “Be Active” in “Five Ways to Wellbeing” suggests additional activities – swimming, walking in a park – rather than incorporating activity into daily routine.

We are also concerned that this strategy includes promoting physical activity as opposed to enabling physical activity. For cycling, enablement would include interventions such as:

  • Streets or protected cycle tracks away from motor traffic (the main reason cited for not cycling is fear/dislike of traffic).
  • A simple, cheap and widely available bike rental system.
  • In particular, non-standard cycles should be available at all Southwark healthcare providers, so that people experiencing physical health problems are supported in remaining active. (E.g. hand cycle, tandem.)
  • Led rides, tailored to particular needs (e.g. starting at hospitals; certain group sizes; accompanied by healthcare professionals). Southwark Cyclists run weekly easy-paced Healthy Rides every Saturday from Peckham Square or Canada Water which are free to all.Information on these facilities to be made available to GPs, therapy groups and other healthcare providers who intend to recommend increased physical activity.

Southwark Cyclists is happy to partner with Southwark Council and local healthcare providers in achieving any and all of these goals. We want to enable all residents to be able to cycle. We’ve found that it’s excellent for our wellbeing!

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