Riding in the great outdoors is so good for your mood the NHS is using it as therapy

It’s official, mountain biking looks like it really is great for our wellbeing, after the sport was used as therapy for NHS patients suffering mental health concerns.

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We’ve all probably worked out the correlation between going riding and feeling good, and God help those around us if we’ve been cooped up inside with no riding for a while. But now it’s official.

Last year a trial group of patients undergoing therapy for mental health issues took part in the pilot study that saw them learning to ride at Glentress, on bikes kindly supplied free by Alpine Bikes. Over six weeks the group developed from nervous non-riders unable to stand up on the pedals into a sociable group, with developing skills and confidence, explains Graeme McLean from Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS), who led the rides.

“We didn’t shy away from riding skinnies, we tackled the blue trail and it became really sociable with good crack as their skills got better,” Graeme says. They were challenged but they had success.”

“I remember the first day, in the car park, learning basic skills like balancing and turning. Then we had a lap of the green loop and straight away that was success for them and more than they were expecting to do. Seeing everyone descend, they were all standing up, in the attack postion, wind in the air and loving it was great.”

“All of this can be applied back in to struggling with social situations, it taught them positive self imagery and self talk, and meant they’d experienced a challenging situation and coped with it to build confidence.”

Crucially then, the group’s mental wellbeing improved using mountain biking as therapy, and more efficiently than it would have done in a clinical environment, the study found. It gave them self-management skills to improve their physical and mental health.

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Surely any kind of activity would have done that though? Not so, according to psychologist Dr Tony Westbury from Edinburgh Napier University, who ran the study. “Any physical activity is good for your mind and body, but if it’s engagement with the natural environment there’s a premium, and it’s even better for you,” he told us. “It creates a connection with a very low stress environment, and sharing that with people of a like mind is also important.”

There’s more to it than that, too. You know that feeling when get to the bottom of a trail and you’re buzzing, but you can’t remember anything about the trail? You’ve just entered the flow state, and that is incredibly beneficial for your mental health, says Graeme McLean.

“There’s an optimal point of that where skill meets challenge, you don’t need to really be an expert level, if the challenge is too hard that’s no good, if it’s too easy you don’t get the same feeling, but if you get the optimum,” Graeme says.

How to boost your wellbeing

Get out there and ride. Well duh. But do it in a group if you can because that leads to good social interaction, which is great for our wellbeing. Setting yourself goals that are achievable is great for your brain, hard enough to be challenging but not so hard you’ll fail every time. Connect with nature while you’re out too, Tony says there’s a premium to be had from exercising in a natural environment where you’re not stressed. Getting into the flow state is crucial as well, but our guess is you’re already seeking out this state without even knowing it. And one of the most important lessons? No distractions — don’t watch the clock, don’t look at phones or listen to music, make the most of the moment. “You’d probably benefit from listening to the birdsong around you rather than your headphones,” Tony says. “But one of the joys of mountain biking is that there are no rules, so do it how you want to — the therapy here is that you choose what you do, where you go, how fast… that’s efficient therapy.”

Citation: Does engagement to a Mountain Biking exercise programme lead to improvements in aspects of psychological well-being and mental health: a pilot study. Dr Tony Westbury, Edinburgh Napier University