I once heard a quote, "get out of your head and into your body.” It made sense to me. It’s a straightforward way to explain how I use exercise to manage my mental health, especially when it starts to go sideways. If I’m feeling unsettled or trying to solve a problem, I get outside and move my body. When time is limited, an intense cardio workout or a short run works wonders for me. For the maximum effect and enjoyment, I go ride my bike on dirt.
It’s a transformative experience, like going to a different world. I hear, see, smell, and feel nature around me. The "noise” of everyday life literally and figuratively subsides, and my mind is with me rather than running in all directions. I can feel the bike and the trail below. I am connected. I am part of everything and that feels good.
Mental health is a vulnerable subject to approach. Although it seems more acceptable to discuss in recent times, there are stigmas that persist. Admitting to feeling down or being depressed is uncomfortable and embarrassing. In my younger days, I thought it was weakness. Ageing and life experiences have given me the courage to be honest about it. At 47, I am not afraid to share that I rely on exercise and the outdoors to stay grounded and deal with the challenges that life brings me. In fact, with the current events of the world, it has been the cornerstone of managing stress.
I have never been more thankful for access to trails and the ability to get out and ride my bike than during the last five months. In mid-March, when the Coronavirus quarantines began, I pressed the pause button on my freelance work and returned to Denver, a place with hundreds of miles of bike-riding opportunities. After traveling virtually non-stop for three years, I embraced my childhood home-base and immersed myself in the surrounding trails. I rediscovered old rides and explored new ones. All the while, I soaked up the natural landscape around me - the sun on my skin, the birds singing, the crisp air in the mornings. The trails were crowded, but I still found my place, pumping my feet on the pedals of whatever bike I happened to be riding. I did big urban rides and front-country adventures.
One highlight was the opportunity to re-introduce my nieces to mountain biking. I’ve taken them on rides in the past, and was excited for the chance to make it a regular routine. One evening while driving to the trailhead, the 13 year old shared that she was having a rough day. Acknowledging her feelings, I had a hunch that she would likely feel differently after the ride. Sure enough, about 10 minutes in she exclaimed, "I feel so much better already!” Soon after, we were pedaling and laughing, having a grand time riding in the late day sun. The 11 year old, a bit preoccupied with snack breaks, discovered an alternative route across the creek. This led to more laughing, wet feet, and big smiles.
There are many studies that can explain why we feel better after a daily dose of movement. After doing a bit of reading, I’ve been able to boil it down to my own simple understanding. Playing outside reduces my cortisol (stress hormone) and increases my serotonin (neurochemical for mood stabilizing) and endorphins (neurochemicals for mood boosting). In other words, nature combined with exercise equals less pain and more fun.
I find myself on the road again, returning to freelance work in small doses. Recently in Knoxville, Tennessee, I ventured out one morning into an extensive system of trails called the Urban Wilderness. It’s a literal oasis for outdoor adventure within the city, offering 1,000 acres and over 50 miles of trails. In contrast to the landscape in Denver, the forests in South Knoxville envelop the trails, making it an immersive experience. I think it might be best described through a practice called forest bathing. The nature sights, sounds, and smells are things that Japanese researchers found to be a magic combination that helps our bodies and mind feel and function better. Once again, I’m so grateful for the trails we have across the country and the people who make them happen.
Riding bikes is paramount to my well-being whether I’m at home or on the road. Aside from from a healthy heart, it is also helpful for creating a safe space to listen, learn, reflect, and make plans for future actions. Ultimately, bicycles and the outdoors put me in a good headspace to cope with the complexity of daily life and the world’s ever-changing new normal.