Ride Bikes, Be Happy: How Mountain Biking Improves My Mental Health

I love to mountain bike. Even when I am not physically on a bike, a vast majority of my thoughts revolve around riding bikes–future rides, past rides, what bikes or components or gear I want to buy someday, skills I want to work on, how I can mountain bike even more than I already do… the list goes on.

For me, riding bikes is more than just a fun hobby. It’s a lifestyle. I’m sure many of you can relate to that. It’s not just something we do in our spare time. It’s something that we plan our lives around, incorporate into vacations, and spend a lot of effort and money on. It’s what we do.

But it’s even more than that for me. It’s a way of dealing with negativity, self-doubt, and bouts of depression. Mountain biking has become a necessary part of my existence.

I wouldn’t call myself a “naturally happy” person. It seems to me that happiness comes much more easily to other people. While I have a really great life, doubts and negativity creep into my mind all too often. My own head is quick to turn against me. Most days, it takes effort to feel good. I don’t particularly like to admit that I struggle with these feelings. I spent several years berating myself for not being happy enough, which, of course, did not make the problem any better.

But more recently, I realized that I have the tools to rise above this negativity, and getting outside daily for aerobic activity, especially biking, is one of the most effective.

The outdoors have always been my happy place, and it turns out there’s good reason for that. Recent studies have shown that being outside in nature literally changes the human brain to quiet the area responsible for excessive brooding and negativity. And exercise releases endorphins in the brain, contributing to a more positive attitude and energized outlook on life.

On a more personal level, being in the woods helps me detach from all the things that stress me out, and completing a challenge such as a long, hard bike ride reminds me that I am strong and capable. Even on days when I’m tired and “just don’t have it,” I always feel better after a ride (or run or hike) than before I started.

Though I’ve always loved being outside, I started really being conscious of the effect of exercise and the outdoors on my mood when I was in college. I was going through a rough patch and hadn’t been dealing with it in the best of ways, until I started running regularly. Whenever I was upset or angry, I would go out for a run, and a quick half hour or so would make me feel a hundred times better. I began to cultivate a more positive, healthy lifestyle based around this outdoor physical activity. Soon after, I rediscovered mountain biking, and it became my go-to.

But I still didn’t realize just how important these activities are to me until very recently, mainly because I didn’t want to admit that I “need” anything to feel okay. I have a great life: a job that I enjoy, the best husband and friends that I could ask for, a great house in a place that I love. I should just be happy, right? I didn’t think that whether or not I felt like a normal human being should hinge upon whether or not I got a workout in. But the truth is, a daily (or almost daily–I do have to skip days here and there) dose of the outdoors and exercise is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to my happiness.

With this realization, I also have tried to free myself from the guilt that sometimes comes with putting riding (or another activity) ahead of most other things on my list of priorities. I used to feel like a terrible friend if I would skip out on social events to go ride instead, or duck out on visitors to go run for an hour. I sometimes felt irresponsible and selfish if I went out to “play” when there were other things I “should” be doing. But after days of skipping my workout to get work done, and then not being productive anyway because I couldn’t focus, or not enjoying social time because I was in a crappy mood, I began to become more accepting of my need for time outside. Now, I actually put my outdoor time on my list of things to do on particularly busy days, and I try to treat it with as much importance as anything else on my schedule.

Because really, what’s the point of life if we don’t do what makes us happy?

A lot of people that I know who don’t ride–and even that do–think I’m crazy for riding my bike in the rain and snow and freezing cold. But the truth is, I’d rather be covered in mud or slogging through powder than sitting inside any day.

Everyone has something that helps them cope with the ups and downs of life, that results in smiles on even the darkest of days. Mountain biking is one of mine.

First posted for Single Tracks.
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Helena Kotala lives in rural central Pennsylvania, a hidden gem for mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.