A two-wheeled philosophy of wellbeing

In our post-pandemic world, there is much talk of how to live better and travel better, how to combine mobility with wellbeing. For many people the answer is simple: it's all about the bicycle

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It has been called the best invention in history. It is simple, practical, cheap to run and, in the eyes of many people, a thing of beauty. If the question is how do we find a form of mobility that combines very low environmental impact with very high efficiency, we already know the answer: it's the bicycle.

But is the bike about something more than mere practicality? Is it time to take the benefits of two-wheeled transport more seriously?

The Covid pandemic has certainly put cycling back in the spotlight as an alternative form of mobility – after all, there can be few better ways of getting about and staying virus-free. But the idea of cycling as a form of transport as much about mental wellbeing as physical health has been around for some time.

Just go for a spin

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without a thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

That was published in Scientific American magazine in 1896, and the author was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle knew a thing or two about physical and mental health. He had been a provincial doctor, learning to love the bicycle when out on his rounds visiting patients.

And Conan Doyle is just one in a list of distinguished writers who have argued that cycling is close to therapy. For example, HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, wrote a book called The Wheels of Chance describing the humanising effects of cycle touring. “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race,” he wrote.

Proven stress-buster

Ask any committed cyclist today if the bike really is a therapeutic tool and you can be sure the answer will be “of course”. But why would that be? And can anyone prove it?

Bicycle psychology is a rich field and there have been several recent scientific enquiries into the links between cycling and mental health. It seems there is more than one reason to link travelling on two wheels and a bit of muscle power with mental wellbeing.

One Spanish study reported in the British Medical Journal used a standard measure to work out whether cycling had any effect on everyday feelings of stress. Sure enough, people who cycled most days (that is, four days a week or more) were at much lower risk of stress and its effects than people who cycled less often or not at all.

Another study from the leading medical journal The Lancet looked at several forms of aerobic exercise and asked whether overall mental health could be improved by regular exercise. Again, the answer was yes, and out of all exercise types cycling was shown to be the second most effective way of improving mental health (team sports were found to be slightly more effective, but only by a very small margin).

Some people believe that the mere fact cycling takes place outside is important. Another study by US and European researchers compared indoor and outdoor exercise and found that outdoor exercise was better at promoting feelings of revitalisation , and decreasing tension and depression.

Finding the balance

But perhaps the link between the bicycle and wellbeing goes deeper. The author Ben Irvine, who wrote the book Einstein & the Art of Mindful Cycling, believes that it is the element of balance on two wheels that is psychologically beneficial. The bicycle is a “dream machine”, he argues, blending “meditation with movement, curiosity with velocity, mindfulness with mudguards. On a bicycle you can achieve in a few weeks an art that Buddhist monks spend decades learning .”

What Irvine is describing is the almost out-of-body experience that every cyclist senses on occasion, the feeling that the bicycle, the road and the rider have become one. This is what the British art critic Tim Hilton (another life-long devotee of cycling) has called the cyclist's “state of grace”.