Cycling as a therapy for depression?
Well, this is not really directly related to commuting by bicycle, but I felt strongly that I need to share this. It is about how cycling is beneficial to your mental health.
Even if you don’t suffer from depression, cycling may improve your mental well-being or, perhaps, you might know someone who struggles with depression and you might help them out a bit.
The exact numbers are not known, mainly because many who suffer don’t understand what is happening to them and never seek help, but many sources believe that as many as 70% of Americans may be suffering from some sort of mood or mental disorder, mostly depression and/or anxiety or related or unrelated sleep problems, but only a fraction of those ever get diagnosed and treated. About 17% of Americans are officially diagnosed with anxiety, mild or major depression (6% for major depression).
This is a long write up including some science but I want to build up a good case for my claim that cycling improves your mental health.
Depression is real suffering, the illness of the 21st Century
Depression is a real, debilitating and devastating illness. It robs people of their lives’ pleasures, it breaks families apart, many depressed people end up taking their lives. 90% percent of people who committed suicide in 2006 in the USA suffered from some kind of mood disorder. According to NIH depression has been the leading cause for disability in recent years and suicide was the 4th (!) cause of death in 2007 in the USA among the productive adults (ages 18-65). It is not known exactly how many people with depression end up taking their lives due to lack of reports but the number may be significant. Some researchers approximate that over a million depressed people commit suicide every year worldwide. This is also common in most other developed countries, mainly England and Germany. Depression might be related to obesity as well. Many researchers and physicians believe that one can lead to another and both are reaching epidemic levels in the modern societies. Women are twice are likely to suffer depression than men, but it is still not entirely explained why.
It’s not something one can simply shake off, snap out of it. It’s a real sickness that if goes untreated it leads to significant lowering of one’s quality of life, can lead to other health problems, alcoholism and drug abuse or even end one’s life altogether. Moderate and major depression never goes away by itself. It may recess for a while only to come back with more force in the following episodes. The vicious cycle may last decades completely messing up one’s life. Just because someone is seemingly doing well, is successful, has a house and family doesn’t mean they’re immune to depression.
Drugs don’t work for most people
In majority of cases people suffering from depression are prescribed antidepressant drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, Effexor, Lexapro or Cymbalta (most common ones, there are more). The sad part is that most of these drugs have strong side effects that are often worse than the illness itself or they even exaggerate the condition by causing insomnia or other sleep problems, loss of sex drive, weight gain, headaches, irritability, memory problems, dizziness, GI problems, etc. Some of these medications in higher doses require sedatives or antianxiety medications such as Clonazepam to offset the negative side effects and these make you drowsy, apathetic and weak during the day. For many people, the cure is worse than the sickness itself.
What is not widely known and publicized (the drug companies don’t want that to spoil the image of their miracle drugs) is that these medications help less than 50% of the sufferers: 25% fully recover (although not always permanently) and 25% get some improvement. For more than half of the patients, the antidepressants have no effect or make their condition even worse. Under the Freedom of Information act many researchers have requested the drug data from FDA and run statistics and they arrived at the above breakdown. To put it in perspective about 20% of patients got better during controlled tests by taking a sugar pill, a placebo. In many tests the antidepressants produced benefits only slightly better than a placebo pill. What are the options then?
My own fight with depression
I have been struggling with depression for the best part of the last decade. I started taking medications like most others because I just didn’t know any better. That’s what majority of modern Psychiatrists are trained for. I have gone through nearly ten different medications with varying effects but none of them included improvement. I happen to be one of the people that antidepressants have no effects on or make it even worse. Psychotherapy helped to some degree, but I have been still suffering.
When I returned to cycling a while ago, it didn’t occur to me at first but riding a bike made me feel better. Whether it was a leisurely ride around the park, a weekend mountain bike ride on the trails or a commute to work. It took me years to realize this and few more years to actually learn and understand why riding a bike makes me feel better. For example, during my (only so far) long bicycle tour, I was depression-free on the third day of the trip. Regardless of the weather, the steep hills, the physical exhaustion, the bike malfunction, I felt great and for first time in many years I felt… happy! I’ve started thinking about this for a while and it all started making sense to me, although I still didn’t understand the underlying mechanism. OK, so I was away from work, from the crowds and the rush, breathing fresh air, but still, I could have driven to a hotel and stay somewhere for couple of weeks, right? Oh, yes, I’ve done that in the past, but it never made me feel this way.
The Depression Cure book
Recently I started reading a book “The Depression Cure” by Dr. Stephen S. Ilardi and just the first chapter hit me like a lighting strike! I had my answer to the question why riding a bike makes me feel better! Here is the book’s website.
OK, before I get to that, let me quickly explain what Dr.Illardi is arguing in his book. Do you know what group of Americans never suffers from depression? The Amish. Do you know that depression is pretty much non existent in the so called third world countries (I hate that term)? Scientists have studied primitive tribes of hunter gatherers and found that less than 1% of them suffer from any mental illnesses or mood disorders!
Rings a bell yet?
What is the difference between those groups and average Americans? Why are so many Americans depressed?
You really should read this book if you suffer from depression, but here is a brief explanation. Dr. Ilardi’s research led him to the following six conclusions:
1) Modern American diet is devoid of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Deficit results in memory problems and increased possibility of mood disorders. These occur naturally in wild game, wild fish, nuts, leafy veggies and seeds. These acids are necessary for our brains to function. The above groups as well as our ancestors consumed up to five or ten times more Omega 3 Fatty Acids than average American these days. But make sure you check with your doctor before taking Omega 3 Fatty Acids supplement if you have heart problems!
2) These groups are engaged in social activities most of the day that keep their minds occupied: they hunt and eat together, they work in the fields together, they build their homes together, they celebrate, dance an pray together, almost everything they do is a social event. Average American is lonely and isolated most of the time: sitting at a desk, sitting in traffic, sitting in front of the TV, and typical work relationships and interactions with coworkers and customers don’t count. Being lonely and isolated makes you more likely to chew on negative thoughts for extended periods of time, focus on negative events in your life which is one of the causes of depression. It’s referred to as ruminating or rumination. We think that being surrounded by millions of other people in urban hives we’re far from being lonely, we’ve got cellphones, the web, email, chat, Skype, we seem to be more in touch than ever before, but in fact we grow isolated, afraid and suspicious of one another. When was the last time you struck a random conversation with a complete stranger on a subway or a bus?
3) These groups work physically most of the day: walk, run, pull, lift, drag, they get a daily workout that exceeds that of a modern, world class athlete. Average American gets no or little workout. Physical exercise is one of the most powerful antidepressants known to humanity. Depression is caused by deficiency of important chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters : serotonin and dopamine. Physical exercise boosts the level of those as well as endorphin, another important neurotransmitter that is responsible for “feeling good”, plus an important growth hormone called BDNF that is critical to the proper function of the brain. Of course, we are not talking about ten minute jog around the park. We are talking about exercise that makes you sweaty and tired. To give you a frame of reference: an hour of intensive cycling burns 700-800 calories. An hour of intensive cycling on a loaded bike and/or in hilly terrain can burn up to 1000 calories or more.
4) These groups are exposed to sunlight for hours each day. We spend time inside buildings from morning till late afternoon. Lack of sunlight causes deficiency of certain vitamins, messes up your body’s internal clock and during Winter months causes condition named aptly as SAD (seasonal affective disorder) a.k.a. winter depression.
5) These groups have complex and long lasting social ties, and social support networks. Most of us do not. This is related to social isolation.
6) Finally, these groups get plenty of proper sleep, they follow the day/night cycle, therefore they sleep at least 10 hours each night. Sleep is essential for your brain and your body to replenish its energy and many other resources, to heal the damage done by work and stress. A healthy adult requires minimum 8 hours of sleep, most even 10. Most people get 6 hours or less and that seems to have become the norm, but it’s false. 6 hours of sleep is not enough for a human to function properly. That’s why over 90% of American population is addicted to coffee and other stimulants. It has been proven many times over that lack of proper sleep has destructive effect one one’s mental and physical health: anything from digestive problems, hart problems to depression and anxiety. And sleep is directly related to some of the above: proper diet, exercise, body clock, lack of ruminating (it tends to get worse when you lie down to sleep at night).
The rest of the book goes over a brief overview of depression, some basic chemistry and biology of the illness, available treatments and the presents ways to address all of the above six lifestyle changes.
How is cycling related to the above?
OK, enough science. Where does biking come in here? I really hope you have figured it out by now:)
1) Cycling is exercise. Many people don’t have the time for regular exercise, or find it boring, or hate the “gym scene” and “gym culture” (I do…) or are just intimidated by the gyms (I am…) so they find it hard to find exercise that they can enjoy or combine with other activities to save time. Cycling is perfect! It is an enjoyable experience, it can be done alone or with friends and/or family and – what’s important – it can be combined with other activities and events, such as: vacations, weekend outing (bike can carry enough cargo for a picnic in the park), errands, shopping (again ,bike can carry a lot) or… commute Such combination can allow you to do something productive and have fun while allowing you to exercise at the same time. As I said above: an hour of intensive cycling burns 700-800 calories. An hour of intensive cycling on a loaded bike and/or in hilly terrain can burn up to 1000 calories or more. So an hour long shopping errand on a bike can pretty much burn your lunch. Touring cyclists who spend anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day pedaling a loaded bike for days or weeks, eat two or three times as much per day as a regular person and still lose weight!
2) Riding a bike keeps your mind busy, there is less time to ruminate, there is less time for idle thoughts. You’re not sitting in traffic, you’re not stuck on subway aggravated and irritated.
3) It’s an activity that allows you to engage with other people: bike clubs, organized ride, family or friends, you’re also more likely to strike a conversation with another cyclist than with a stranger on the street or on the bus.
4) It’s an outdoor activity that exposes you to sunlight, for hours.
Sure, there are many other sports that do a lot of the above: soccer, tennis, outdoor basketball, outdoor volleyball, etc. I don’t discount those at all. If you enjoy these, then even better! Consider riding a bike to the game next time;) A bike can carry your gear easily. But, first of all this is a cycling blog and second of all cycling is unique in a way that it can be combined seamlessly with other activities and events. It can actually make these activities more enjoyable or even more effective. For instance, I like to do grocery shopping on my bike to avoid traffic and parking problems among other things. Cycling can be integrated into your life. For instance, riding a bike to work is like going to the gym, except once you’re done you’re already at work! If you’re concerned with being stinky at work, read my other article here about how to stay fresh and clean after a bike commute.
Cycling towards simpler and calmer life
Also, cycling exposes you to a different world or rather, gives you a different perspective on the world around you: a world without rush, without traffic, without anxiety. A world of reflection, observation and rediscovery. A lot of people who made cycling a part of their life eventually started looking into other ways of making their lives simpler and calmer. Cycling opened their minds onto the fact that there are things in the modern life that can be done differently, without the rush and aggravation they’re used to live with.
Therefore – a lot like the Amish or the hunters in Africa – they avoid some of the wonders of our civilization that brought the depression and stress upon us in the first place. They start looking into de-cluttering their lives, lowering their TV usage and getting outside more, engaging in other issues they care for, spending more time with their kids, picking up other sports such as tennis or swimming (getting there by bike, of course) they often change their diets because once you start exercising regularly your metabolism changes, becomes more “normal” and you start craving better, more nutritious food.
So here it is, the answer to why cycling makes me feel better:)
I have decided to ride as much as possible from now on. Once it gets warm, I’ll spend as many weekends as possible riding. I will join 5BBC again and do rides with them. I will take leave of absence and go on long bicycle tour this year. I will take every opportunity to get outdoor exercise including hiking as well, maybe pickup some other sports too. I will eat my Omega 3 Fatty Acids. I want to prove Dr. Illardi right
Makes sense? Let me know.
You can purchase “The Depression Cure” by Dr. Stephen Illardi from the NYC Bike Commuter Store.
Thank you for reading!