We all know that exercise benefits our physical health but what about our mental health? Recent research has shown that two-thirds of people spend less than an hour per day outside during autumn and winter. Rather than getting a boost from staying in snuggling up on the sofa with a cuppa, the lack of activity, light and fresh air affects many people’s mood in a negative way.
Lack of light causes changes in our hormones. Exposure to sunlight increases serotonin, the ‘feel good hormone’ of which we naturally produce less in the winter.
The winter blues, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are said to affect around 2 million people in the UK. One theory about why the season affects our mood is that the lack of light causes changes in our hormones, mainly because the dark, short days mean our body misses the signal to stop producing the sleep hormone melatonin. Higher levels of melatonin can help cause depression, lethargy and lack of motivation, meaning you’re even less likely to get outside and exercise.
Other symptoms of SAD include a tendency to oversleep, which possible exacerbates the condition even further as anecdotal evidence suggests the most important time to expose yourself to light is first thing in the morning. Exposure to sunlight increases serotonin, the ‘feel good hormone’ of which we naturally produce less in the winter.
SAD can also give you the compulsion to overeat, particularly when it comes to starchy carbohydrates and let’s face it, feeling fat doesn’t make you feel any better about yourself. This in turn can worsen the desire to withdraw yourself from social situations and hide away all winter - a vicious cycle that's hard to ‘snap out of’ even when you know it’s doing you no good.
So where does cycling come into this?
It’s simple. Evidence suggests that just 30-minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is an effective treatment for depression. It’s a fantastically easy, immediate and thrifty way to self-medicate, so keen cyclists are already armed with a powerful tool against winter blues.
If you’re able to commute, transform a slot of time (that you might normally waste staring into space) into something very valuable.
Exercising outdoors is the absolute pinnacle of mood-boosting endeavours; the added exposure to light adding further serotonin. Cycling is also easy to fit in if you’re able to commute, transform a slot of time (that you might normally waste staring into space) into something very valuable.
Despite all these great reasons to ride through winter, it can be hard to transition from summer to winter cycling. One of the hardest things is actually just getting out of bed when it’s cold and dark outside, but the best way to deal with that is to not allow yourself to negotiate any extra minutes in bed. Leave your alarm clock or phone on the other side of the room so that you’re forced to get up to turn it off and once you’re up, never ever get back into bed!
A well thought-out cycling wardrobe makes heading out into the cold less daunting.
Having checked the weather forecast the previous night, I like to leave my chosen cycling clothes laid out, so I'm ready to first thing in the morning.
Whilst it’s perfectly possible to cycle in anything at all, a well thought-out cycling wardrobe makes heading out into the cold less daunting.
A jacket for rainy days is your first priority
...and it’s best to choose something lightweight and breathable as you can layer it (or remove it) depending on the weather.
A synthetic or merino wicking base-layer
...helps spirit sweat away from the skin to keep you comfortable, dry and snug.
Quality waterproof trousers
...ensure you’ll never miss a day due to bad weather and a peaked hat under your helmet helps keep rain out of your eyes.
A pair of waterproof shoe covers
... if you wear cycling shoes, help banish cold, soggy feet. If you don’t, consider waterproof socks or waterproof hiking boots with a good tread. To top is all off, add bright front and rear lights (definitely) and reflective clothing (should you wish).
The start of autumn is also a good time to get your bike winter ready.
Consider changing your tyres to something tougher, wider and with more grip and inflate them slightly less than usual to give better traction. Check your brake pads have enough life left in them, inspect the chain for wear and have a good look over your whole bike for any cracks, dents or frayed cables. Be sure to regularly check or service your bike throughout the winter months as grit, salt, rain and dirt can mean it deteriorates more quickly than normal. To keep things running smoothly, wash it regularly and oil the chain.
Out on the road, it pays to adapt your riding to winter conditions. Sticking with main roads rather than side roads makes sense as they are less likely to be icy. Be sure to leave extra time to slow down and stop as braking distance is increased in the wet. Take care to avoid white lines and manhole covers as they may be slippery.
In conclusion, there may be a few reasons why not to ride in winter and if you’re determined not to do yourself any good, I’m sure you can come up with a hefty list. But any of those reasons are vastly overshadowed by the positive things about cycling in winter so write a list of those and stick it on your fridge - your body and mind will thank you for it.
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