HOW MOUNTAIN BIKING
IMPROVES
YOUR MENTAL HEALTH

One day at work, I made a spur of the moment decision: instead of waiting for the weekend to go out on the trails, I’d go for a quick mountain bike ride as soon as I left the office. That workday had been miserable – I was late on a deadline, other projects were piling up, and I couldn’t focus. You could say I was stressed, but that would be an understatement. I quickly saved some documents and finalized a few emails, then sped home, grabbed my mountain bike, and headed to the local trailhead for a few laps of my favorite trail.

While I was in the middle of that lap, I noticed something amazing. All of the stress that had caused my muscles to tense up and my brain to buzz with uneasy thoughts was gone. It had been replaced with the rush of adrenalin of descents and the relaxation of nature. While I knew there was still work to be done, I wasn’t as worried about it – and I was able to think about that work in a productive way even hours after the ride.

This experience made me wonder exactly what was happening with my body when I hit the trails, so I dug into the literature on physical and mental health and their relationship with mountain biking. Here, I’m excited to share some of my discoveries, pinpointing the main ways that mountain biking can support your mind and body.

Mountain biking increases self-confidence

There are times when you’re riding a new trail and come across a feature that seems impossible. Perhaps it’s a rock garden featuring slippery angled stones with jagged edges or a teeter-totter that’s just a little narrower than you’re used to. But after you scope it out, you give it a try – and even though you may not get it on the first try, you’re able to ride the feature in the end. In this way, mountain biking helps your self-confidence by forcing you out of your comfort zone until you succeed. I have this happen all the time on some of the local experimental trails, where the trail builders like to work on features that seem tricky at first but are immensely satisfying once the right line is figured out. It takes a few attempts (I usually end up slinging myself off the trail into a bush), but after I ride that line I feel extremely happy. That’s because I’m able to reward my brain and my body simultaneously by figuring out something that seemed totally impossible at first.

Repeatedly doing tasks or activities that you can improve in is actually a scientifically proven way of building confidence. In particular, a few psychologists have examined this in the context of outdoor and indoor exercise. A study by Thomas Plante, Ph.D. and colleagues at Santa Clara University found that outdoor exercise radically increased energy levels – and this boost in energy was also associated with a boost in confidence and self-efficacy, a term for belief in your own abilities to do tasks successfully. This is true of children and adults, increasing self-confidence even with a short bike to work or school. Enough work has noticed this boost of self-efficacy upon outdoor activity that an extensive meta-analysis of these studies has been conducted, finding that self-confidence increased significantly across a range of outdoor recreational activities. 

Mountain biking makes your heart healthier, increasing blood flow to the brain

Astonishingly, nearly half of all Americans (about 48.5%) have some form of heart disease. That’s about 122 million people living with a heart problem that they may or may not be aware of, an astounding figure that’s not talked about much. This is largely due to the unhealthy habits of adult Americans, including smoking, primarily consuming fatty foods, and not exercising. Heart disease has also been correlated with worse mental health, thought to be in part due to proportionally lower circulation to the brain. Fortunately, mountain biking can help counteract the chances of developing heart problems and could have positive impacts on mental health through this.

Many studies have found that bicycling in moderation decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease and increases your overall health. A recent review paper analyzed 16 different studies on cycling and overall health, ultimately indicating that cardiovascular health increases with longer distances and times spent cycling. These studies show that heart fitness can increase by up to 30% from baseline values, lowering your resting heart rate and significantly decreasing the chances of getting severe heart diseases. But why exactly does mountain biking do this for your heart?From my research and from personal experience, this increased heart health is likely due to the use of compound muscle groups when mountain biking. Unlike road biking or indoor cycling, mountain biking utilizes core strength and other muscle groups in the upper body to maintain balance on tricky segments of trail. Furthermore, different muscle groups are activated unpredictably. 

For example, you may be on a smooth section of trail for a few minutes that only requires you to use basic thigh and calf muscle groups to pedal, but quickly may switch to technical downhill segments that require other muscle groups for balance. This means you’re using more oxygen, as these muscle groups must be able to fire quickly in response to those balance-needing events. In turn, that oxygen demand means that your heart must work more efficiently to deliver oxygen to the various parts of your body. As you spend more time mountain biking, your heart will train itself to be more efficient in oxygen uptake and distribution. This increased oxygen efficiency of your heart can have a big impact on your mental health. While it’s extremely difficult for researchers to disentangle the effects of exercise on cardiovascular health and mental health separately, it is certain that both are directly impacted by exercise. At least one study has shown that hypertension and heart disease severely limits cognitive functioning, suggesting that reducing hypertension may increase mental functionality.

Mountain biking reduces stress levels

Like I mentioned in the introduction, I can get pretty stressed out because of work – and I’m not alone. In fact, more than 75% of Americans are stressed out. This anxiousness can manifest in lost sleep, with half of all stressed adults staying awake due to stress longer than they should. It can also cause general fatigue and sadness, resulting in a cycle of more stress and more fatigue that’s hard to break free from. One of the most common ways doctors recommend to break free of this cycle is through outdoor exercise. But why exactly does this work?

You may have heard of runner’s high – a state that comes from long training runs, where you feel extremely happy, less anxious, and generally comfortable in your body and in your physical space. This happens because your body produces endorphins, stimulating pathways in the brain corresponding to these positive outcomes. Incidentally, it also triggers the production of some molecules that interact with cannabinoid receptors. Though this is a phenomenon associated with running (after all, it is named “runner’s high”), it’s an experience that you can have from any long-term aerobic exercise. I’ve experienced this rush from some of my two-hour rides before, realizing how happy and de-stressed I feel on the drive home. This is well-documented in scientific research, with a type of endorphin known as a beta-endorphin increasing in concentration with time spent cycling.

During exercise, our bodies also produce serotonin. Serotonin reduces symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety through a variety of receptor-based brain mechanisms. While we naturally produce serotonin, exercise boosts that production to noticeable levels. The combination of serotonin production and endorphin production has a positive cascading effect on our mental health, with multiple meta-analyses showing that exercise works as an effective anti-depressant agent without the side effects of pharmaceutical agents.

Time in nature improves mental health

During the winter, I’ll hop on an exercise bike for a quick session at the gym. But I’ve noticed that I don’t feel quite as fulfilled when I’m done with a session as I do out on the trails. Though some of this might be due to the feeling of self-efficacy mentioned early, a large part of this difference in satisfaction is due to something surprising. There’s actually a strong effect of nature itself on mental health and cognition. Researchers have determined that green exercise, or exercise that takes place in a natural, non-urban environment, has significant positive effects on mental health.

There are many factors that contribute to the effects of nature on mental health. One is that our attention is far more directed in nature. While there is a wide range of distractions in our built environments at work or at home, like computers, television, or other people, in nature there are relatively few. This is even truer when exercising in nature, as the sole focus is on continuing that exercise. This sole focus acts as a sort of reset button, forcing our brains to work on single tasks rather than pulling cognitive functions in different directions due to distraction. This also ties in closely with the idea of concentration – in modern environments, it’s hard to concentrate on single tasks for more than a few minutes without an external distraction. But when you’re exercising, it’s nearly impossible for your brain to focus on anything except that exercise. Mountain biking is especially relevant here, as loss of focus for a millisecond could lead to harmful crashes or missed opportunities. Studies show that exercise increases the ability to concentrate, and that this is correlated strongly with mental health. Though we don’t yet know what it is about natural environments that stimulates our brains in this way, we can be sure that getting out on those trails will definitely help your mental health in some way.

Better sleep leads to better mental health

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve come home from a ride and crashed on the couch for a quick nap. Furthermore, my sleep on nights after long rides is noticeably better than other nights, and I wake up refreshed and ready to tackle the next day’s tasks. I’m not alone on this – exercise makes us sleep better in multiple ways. Moderate levels of exercise increase the ratio of deep sleep to light sleep, meaning that we spend more time in mental and physical recovery states (deep sleep) than other states (light sleep).

Not only does exercise affect your mental state, but it also changes some physical states of your body. In particular, most exercise raises your core body temperature to levels that are not associated with sleep. But the cool-down period after exercise lets your core temperature go back down to regular levels. Your body recognizes this as a pre-sleep body temperature change, as our circadian rhythm actually lowers body temperature as we’re getting tired. By timing your exercise to end about 90 minutes prior to a nap or sleep, you’ll get to sleep faster since your body is already priming itself for sleep.

The higher quality sleep you get, the more your mental health will benefit. A significant body of research work has focused on the relationship between sleep and mental health. Most studies indicate that 7-9 hours of sleep is optimal for most people, and better quality sleep during those 7-9 hours corresponds to a healthier outlook on life. Though it’s unlikely that you’ll time your mountain biking to end an hour and a half before you head to bed (unless you prefer night rides, or are lucky enough to live near a well-lit downhill bike park), you can use this information to get some sweet naps in after rides.

WRAPPING UP

Mountain biking is just one of many forms of exercise that can boost your mental health. But it’s unique in its ability to affect multiple facets of those mental health benefits in one session. The experience of being out in nature alone can boost positivity, but combining that with the problem-solving skills you need for some trails makes your self-confidence skyrocket. When this is then combined with the rush of endorphins and serotonin, you feel ecstatic about your trail days. In total, mountain biking is a great way to experience nature, get fitter, and improve your mental health at the same time.

REFERENCES

1. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2006-04110-006 

2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749379707002498

3. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1990-19731-001

4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190131084238.htm#

5. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01299.x

6. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11906-003-0029-6