Can mountain biking make you happy?

Everybody knows being out in nature makes you feel better. Now science can explain why. Vicky Carroll gets on her bike to investigate

Anyone who has ever tried mountain biking knows that every ride – even (especially) cold, mucky ones – comes with a great big grin.

But could riding a bike in forests and country paths actually combat depression and mental illness? A six-week pilot in Scotland, where mountain biking was used as part of a therapeutic recovery programme for people experiencing mental ill health, suggests yes.

A partnership between Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), Scottish Borders Health and Social Care Partnership, Edinburgh Napier University and mental health support unit Gala Resource Centre, the project saw 10 participants embarking on weekly two-hour rides at Glentress mountain bike trails near Peebles, with cycling and health professionals on hand. “We wanted to understand if mountain biking aided people’s recovery from a period of mental ill-health,” explains DMBinS project manager Graeme McLean. 

Staff reported an exceptional response from everyone taking part.

The premise was to use a non-clinical environment to promote self-management skills to improve both physical and mental health. Chief officer for the programme, Robert McCulloch-Graham, says: “Staff reported an exceptional response from everyone taking part. They were able to observe genuine progress being made in terms of personal resilience, self-efficacy, social skills and confidence.”

Results are now being evaluated by Napier University sports psychologist Tony Westbury, who is studying the impact from the participants’ perspective and collecting learning from the occupational therapists involved regarding how it could be developed, improved and escalated.

Within the cycling community the positive boost that being on a bike gives to your head, heart and soul is widely recognised; for any cyclist the fun factor, confidence and happiness that a bike ride brings is a no-brainer. And last August the largest study of its kind, analysing the exercise and mental health data of 1,237,194 adults over three years, backed this up.

The research, carried out by neuroscientists and psychiatrists in the US and UK and published in The Lancet Psychiatry Journal, found that people who exercised experienced less adverse mental health including depression, stress and other emotional trouble than people who did not – two days over the course of a month, compared to 3.4 days for non-exercisers. And out of 75 types of exercise studied, cycling was second only to team sports, with riders experiencing 21.6 per cent fewer bad mental health days than non-exercisers (team-sport players had 23.3 per cent fewer bad days).

So cycling generally has a positive effect, and when combined with being out among nature its benefits are turbocharged. 

Research by Stanford University offers a key to understanding the unique happiness-boosting power of mountain biking. The 2015 study into subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) activation – the bit of your brain linked to depression and mental illness –  found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting of trees and fields showed less activity in that spot compared to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting. They also experienced decreased rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self, associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses. The researchers concluded that there is a pathway by which experiencing nature may improve mental wellbeing. 

It is a blossoming field of study. In 2008 University of Michigan psychologists discovered that the secret of being in untamed spaces is the nature of the stimuli that people are exposed to. “Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs the attention in a bottom-up fashion,” they wrote, which contrasts with urban environments crammed with “stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention, eg to avoid being hit by a car” which, understandably, is less restorative than spending time gazing up at trees.

As mental health charity Mind highlights, therapies taking place in natural outdoors settings, known as ecotherapy, improve mood and relaxation, reduce stress and anger, building confidence and self-esteem. Being out in natural light can also help people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), especially at this time of year.

So nature plus bikes is the perfect equation for happiness. And mountain biking has never been more accessible in the UK. You don’t have to be a high-speed downhill thrill-seeker or rock-hopping trickster, like superstar Danny MacAskill. Carefully designed trail centres with challenging extreme routes alongside family-friendly pottering paths have taken root in forests and valleys, from Bristol to the Highlands, with hotspots in Wales, Staffordshire, Forest of Dean, the north of England and the Borders. So get on a bike, get lost in a forest. It’s good for you. Science says so.

Image: iStock