Happiness. It comes easy to some. It's more elusive to others. But seeking happiness is a primary purpose of practically everyone's life. It's even in the Declaration of Independence: "…the pursuit of Happiness." Defining happiness is nevertheless difficult to do, mainly because every person sees happiness differently. One thing is certain, though. Happy people know that to be happy, you can't just sit around waiting for happiness to show up. You have to do things that make you happy, and bicycling makes us happier.
Bicycling enthusiasts understand this to a T, even if they may not be able to articulate the concept. They just live it through their riding. Scientists, on the other hand, have been studying the subject of happiness a lot in recent years, and their work has led to some interesting findings about both what makes us happy in general, and how cycling specifically enhances our happiness. This is what they've found:
It Starts In the Brain
Happiness is all about mood, and mood is all about the brain. Or, more specifically, chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Here's a brief (I promise) lesson in brain science. Neurotransmitters are the messengers of the brain, relaying signals between nerve cells called "neurons." Quite frankly, your body couldn't function without them. Neurotransmitters tell your heart when and how to beat, your lungs how to inhale and exhale, and your stomach how to deal with the food you put in it. They're involved in practically every activity your body participates in. And that includes regulating mood.
There are lots of different types of neurotransmitters that have some influence on mood, such as melatonin, insulin, dopamine, oxytocin, and others. But the most important one is serotonin, which affects not only mood, but appetite, sleep, sexual function, memory, learning, and much more. An imbalance in serotonin levels can wreak havoc in all of these areas, and research has shown that low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and even suicide.
So, what does all of this have to do with riding your bicycle? It's actually pretty simple: Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, increases both serotonin production and release. Other studies have indicated that exercise increases levels of other "happy" chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin as well. And, as any cyclist in the world will tell you, biking is a great way to get your heart pumping.
Other ways exercise is good for the brain? Here are a few more examples:
- Executive functioning. "Executive functioning" is a fancy term that describes a number of higher-level brain functions, including working memory capacity, selective attention, task switching and inhibition of proponent (dominant) responses. According to this report, studies of aging have provided evidence that executive functioning is benefitted by exercise.
- IQ. A study on young Swedish men concluded that cardiovascular fitness had a positive effect on intelligence.
- Anxiety. Another study, this one examining exercise training as a stress-management method, found evidence of a low to moderate positive effect on reducing anxiety.
- Brain growth. Wait a minute. Exercise can make your brain bigger? Apparently so. A number of studies have indicated that exercise promotes brain cell growth, finding that the incorporation of a regular aerobic exercise routine not only prevents age-related degeneration in the brain, but can also increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain most associated with learning and memory.
Exercise has additionally been found to alleviate stress, improve self-esteem, reduce migraines and headaches, lower the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, boost creativity, and on and on.
Bicycling Can Improve Sleep, and Better Sleep Makes Us Happy
There aren't a lot of things that make us feel better than waking up refreshed and energized after a good night's sleep. Yet many people find that actually getting a full, restful night's sleep is not so easy. How many? According to the U.S. Government's Centers for Disease Control and Pain, more than one-third of American adults fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis. And that's not good. Sleep deprivation results in a number of serious negative and, in some instances, downright scary effects, like:
- Increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks and heart failure.
- Increased risk of stroke.
- High blood pressure.
- Higher chances of diabetes and obesity.
- Impairment of judgment.
- Higher risk of automobile, household and other kinds of accidents.
- Higher risk of depression.
- Lower sex drive and diminished performance.
- Inability to think clearly.
- Lower creativity.
And then there's just plain old grumpiness. The point is that lack of sleep causes all sorts of problems, many directly related to our mental and emotional well being. In other words, sleep is essential to being happy.
How does all of this relate to cycling? If you haven't already guessed, it's this: Exercise improves sleep. How do we know? Science, in the form of clinical studies. Lots and lots of them.
Here are just a few findings:
- Researchers from Bellarmine University and Oregon State University found that people who get 150 minutes of exercise weekly are more alert and less sleepy, and feel better than people who don't.
- High-intensity exercise resulted in an increase in slow wave sleep (also known as "deep sleep") stages.
- The Mayo Clinic concludes that regular exercise helps you to fall asleep faster and deepens your sleep (but recommends not exercising too close to bedtime).
Now, there are a lot of causes of sleep deprivation, including stress, diet, sleep apnea, environment, a partner that snores, and many more. And if you're having a significant problem with getting enough sleep, it's important to discuss it with your doctor. Regardless, getting some solid exercise, like the kind bicycling can provide, is a great way to improve the quality of your sleep and your mood.
Cycling's Good for Your Heart, and the Rest of Your Body
Apart from the direct link between bicycling and brain health, there's another slightly less direct link. The calculation goes something like this:
Cycling is good exercise. Exercise is required for physical fitness. Physical fitness is an important element to emotional well being (happiness).
Slightly less direct, but just as important, nevertheless. Important enough to take a look at each part of this calculation separately:
Cycling is good exercise. Casual riders and bicycling enthusiasts alike know this one:
- Cycling is efficient. Bicycling is a great cardio workout that gives you a lot of bang for your buck in the form of calories burned for the time put in. Aerobic exercise requires using big muscle groups in the lower body, and that means the legs. What muscles are you working when you're pedaling? That's right.
- Cycling is easy on the joints. Biking is considered a low-impact workout activity, meaning there's a lower chance of damage to your joints when compared to higher-impact activities like running, jogging and aerobics.
- Cycling is convenient and versatile. You can do biking just about anywhere (outside that is) at anytime. And you'll get some amount of benefit from your effort regardless of your current fitness level. All you need is a bike.
- Exercise is required for physical fitness. This is the most obvious element and, for a lot of people, the most unfortunate one. But the fact is that if you want the benefits of being physically fit, you're going to have to get up and move your body.
- Physical fitness is an important element to emotional well being (happiness). It's simple. A stronger, physically fit body allows its owner to avoid disease, get out of the house and be more active. All important elements to living a happier life.
Speaking of getting out of the house…
Cycling Gets You Outdoors
It's probably clear to you by now that exercise is a great way to increase happiness. It may not be so clear, however, why bicycling is a particularly good way to get that exercise. Here's one big reason: Biking gets you outside. That's not to say that exercising indoors on a stationary bike is a waste of time. It's not. It's just that there's more to gain, both physically and mentally, when you move your ride outside. Here's why:
- Exercise is easier when you're outside. Exercising outdoors is easier. Why? For one thing, it's more interesting. Or put another way, exercising indoors – on a stationary bike or treadmill, for example – is usually pretty boring. There's just more to see and hear when you're outside, lots of interesting stuff to take your mind off the physical exertion.
- It's more efficient, too. When you work out in the out-of-doors, you'll likely be doing so with more intensity, and that means a more efficient workout.
- Vitamin D. Health and happiness go hand-in-hand, and one thing you need for good health, specifically bone health, is vitamin D. You can get your vitamin D in a few foods and by taking a supplement, but most of it comes from exposure to sunlight, like the kind you get when you're outside on your bike.
- Nature just plain makes us happy. Another benefit of being outdoors is that it elevates mood. Studies have indicated that exposure to nature is associated with lower levels of stress, reduced anxiety and depression, improved cognition, and more.
There's a term of all of this: "green exercise." And it's good for you. So, when you're feeling down and looking for a way to get a quick happiness fix, here's what you can do: Get off the couch, go outside, hop on your bike and spend some quality time riding around in nature.
Cycling is a Social Activity and Being Social Makes Us Happy
Biking can be done alone, but cyclists often ride in groups and tend toward sharing their love of riding with each other. All you need for proof is to go out on a Saturday or Sunday morning and look around. You'll see cyclists by the score, some in pairs, others in groups of a dozen or more. And consider this: There are literally hundreds of bicycle clubs with hundreds of thousands of members throughout the U.S. alone.
Time to turn once again to science for this important fact: Being socially connected and having friends makes us happier. In fact, many experts believe that social interaction is the number one key to happiness. Some interesting study findings include:
- There is an increased risk of death for persons with a low quantity, and sometimes a low quality, of social relationships.
- Highly social people with the strongest relationships with others tend to be the happiest people.
- A person who doubles the number of his or her friends experiences the same positive effect on well-being as experienced with a 50% increase in his or her income.
Additionally, it turns out that our brains may actually be wired for social connections. And those social connections need involve real live, face-to-face interactions. Social media won't do. In fact, one study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that interacting with others through Facebook may actually undermine well-being.
Here's the bottom line: New in town, want to meet people but aren't into singles bars? Get a bike and start riding. You'll be meeting other fun and interesting people before you know it, and be happier as a result.
How Can Bicycling Make You Happier?
Now that the case is made, it's up to you to decide if you want to make bicycling a regular part of your happiness regimen. If the answer is yes, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Gotta have a bike. You'll obviously need a bike if you are going to go cycling. And it would take an entire article, at least, to cover everything you need to know about picking the right bike for you. Just remember that you don't need one with a thousand gears and all of the other bells and whistles. Just be sure to get one that's well-built, fits you properly, and meant for the type of riding you plan to do.
- Baby steps. Like any new exercise program or activity, it's best to start slowly. Also, stay on familiar roads and stick close to home. You'll be branching out soon enough.
- Make it a habit. Also, like any new exercise program or activity, you are much more likely to achieve biking success if you make riding a habit. Try to go out every day, or every other day, and keep to a schedule. Don't be too strict, though. Remember to keep it fun.
- Know the rules. Cycling should be enjoyable and stress-free – which is hard to do if you're constantly being subjected to blasting car horns and disgruntled pedestrians. The best way to avoid stressful biking is by adhering to the rules of the road.
- Don't go it alone. Nothing takes the fun out of biking quicker than not knowing what you're doing. Fortunately, there are plenty of enthusiasts around who will be happy to help you discover the pleasures of cycling. Join a local bicycle club, or start a riding group of your own. Remember, cycling is a social activity and being social plays a big part in creating happiness, so spread the happiness around.
One more thought, and this one comes from the Dalai Lama: "Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions." And remember, you always have the power to act. So get out there and start riding!