When we think of the health benefits of exercise many of us look to the physical side such as weight loss and improved fitness, but what about the mental health benefits? Studies have shown physical activity, including cycling and walking, can be used to overcome, and even prevent, stress, depression and anxiety. According to the Mental Health Foundation, it can be as effective as medication and counselling.
We caught up with Carole Jones, a retired teacher, to find out more about her experiences of cycling to relieve stress.
Carole, a retired teacher, first came to cycling aged 52 while off work with stress.
“I was off work for about six months,” she said. “There were changes at the school I taught at which meant I was travelling between multiple sites and this, together with cutbacks and workload pressures, began to take its toll – a large number of my colleagues were also off with stress at that time.
“I was looking around for a remedy and something to help me recover. I really didn’t want to start taking tablets, so my doctor recommended getting some exercise, which was when I started cycling.”
“A way of life”
Carole soon discovered that this was a sport for her.
“I like cycling because there are very few constraints,” she said. “You can go as far as you like and at any time of the day, either by yourself or with a group of friends. To me it’s more social than competitive.”
“I would come home from a cycle ride feeling energised. I had endorphins pumping around my body and I felt good. I was not taking antidepressants but I was enjoying a natural lift to my mood.
“It’s just a wonderful way of relieving stress – getting exercise, being outdoors in the fresh air and the freedom of travelling under your own steam.
“Cycling has kept me sane, it’s kept my weight down and it’s helped me to meet people. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a way of life – I do more miles on my bike than in my car.
“You just feel good about yourself and it’s lovely. Even getting wet is lovely when you know you can get dry again.”
From getting back in the saddle to long distance touring
Having not done a lot of cycling before, Carole bought her first bike after her Great Aunty Madge, who was 105-years-old when she died, left her some money.
She was looking for some support to get started when she stumbled across the Stockton Active Travel Hub. That was 10 years ago and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I picked up a leaflet about the Hub with a list of rides on,” she said. “I did one ride and I ticked it off, then I did another one and that’s how it started.
“The first ride that I did was 10 miles and I remember ringing my mum after I came home to tell her about my achievement. She said (like mothers do) that it was “too far for a woman of my age”.
Slowly building up the mileage since her first visit to The Hub, Carole has gone on to solo cycle the length of the UK from Lands’ End to John O’Groats, (LEJOG).
She was also inspired by a Sustrans map on the wall at the Hub and went on to cycle, solo and unsupported, The North Sea Cycle Route, taking in six countries in six weeks to celebrate her 60th birthday year.
“These trips really stretched me, but by going beyond my comfort zone – being in charge of planning routes, finding a place to sleep each night and talking to people I encountered on my journey – I’ve improved my self-confidence and discovered a world full of lovely people,” she said.
“I really didn’t think I had the guts to do anything so adventurous on my own. Cycling has literally opened up a whole new world to me.”
“Not all Nanas knit”
The Hub not only enabled Carole to meet like-minded people, it also gave her the opportunity to learn maintenance skills to enable her to cycle independently with confidence.
“If you’re looking to start cycling but are unsure of resolving any technical problems that might happen while you’re out and about, I’d recommend you start by cycling in a group,” said Carole. “It doesn’t have to be a lycra-clad club, it can be a Hub or a social cycling group”.
“Also look out for simple bike maintenance courses. It’s good to know you can mend a puncture or slip your chain back on if needed and this helps give you confidence to go out by yourself.
“I was once having a cup of tea in a café in Norwich when a couple of young lads (well, young to me) came in and asked two male cyclists if they could repair a broken chain as neither of them knew how to.
“I slowly put my cup down and said, to their disbelief, “I can repair that for you”. They were shocked and relieved to be able to cycle home. I told them “Not all Nanas knit!”
Now Carole gives illustrated talks about her adventures to groups, including the W.I. and Townswomen’s Guild.
Many of the older ladies at these groups tell her of how they cycled on roads with relatively little traffic in their youth, how cycling was a popular weekend recreation, and lots of their friends would load their bikes onto the cycle carriage of trains and travel to the country.
“With busy roads and a lack of cycle lanes in this country, many people, including children, are discouraged from cycling,” said Carole.
“Cycling has so much to offer in respect of keeping fit, providing social support, reducing obesity and, as in my case, helping to reduce stress and depression without the need for drugs.
“I have seen first-hand how cycling can improve your health and part of my mission now is to get more kids cycling and to get their parents cycling too.”