How Winter Cycling Saved My Mental Health

Who in their right mind rides a bike in the cold? Well, it turns out that riding a bike in the winter can actually help keep the mind “right”. It certainly did for me.

Winter has always been challenging for me. I experience seasonal affective disorder, which amplifies the depression I normally deal with. With winter comes less exposure to the sun, and I find myself feeling very lethargic and my mood hits its absolute lowest. Getting out of bed can feel impossible some days.

In 2014, when I was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, I got myself a light therapy lamp. I also started a project that brought light therapy to public libraries, so that people who couldn’t afford them could access them for free. Currently, there are more than 100 light therapy lamps in libraries across North America. Check out this map to see if there is one near you. If there isn’t, email me, and I can help you get a project started.

Around the time I started using a light therapy lamp, I was looking at other areas of my life where I could make changes to improve my mental health. As I wrote in a previous post, riding a bike plays an important role in keeping me grounded. When winter came, I would stop this meditative practice of biking to work. I threw my bike in the shed, and drove to work everyday. I thought that was what you did in the winter. But, on Twitter, I started seeing people post about riding their bikes in the winter. I thought they were nuts. But, it looked like they were having a blast. Inspired by seeing people in my community biking through the winter, I bought a used bike, threw some studded tires on it, and got out there. And, IT WAS AMAZING.

Before winter cycling, my winter mornings consisted of waking up sluggish, dragging my sluggish body into my car, plopping my sluggish body on my office chair, and then drinking obscene amounts of coffee to wake myself up.

Winter biking revolutionized my mornings. My twenty minute bike to work in brisk temperatures woke me up more than any cup of coffee ever could. I arrived at my desk alert, feeling great, and ready to seize the day. And, the bike ride at the end of the day would ensure I’d arrive at home energized to cook a fresh meal, instead of eating something unhealthy and retiring to my couch. I was amazed at the impact it had. Riding a bike changed how I saw winter.

A happy winter bike selfie

Misconceptions surrounding winter is, in my mind, one of the biggest reasons that cycling year round is seen as impossible. Earlier this week, I gave a keynote on winter and wellbeing at the International Winter Cycling Congress, a gathering of people from all over the world who want to help get more people out on their bikes in the winter. One of the other panelists I spoke alongside was Sue Holdsworth, who was responsible for Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy. The WinterCity Strategy was developed to help change peoples’ minds about winter, and has implications on winter wellbeing, as well as the winter economy. Sue talked about how myths and mental models inform how we engage with the winter. Most people see winter as something to dread. We like to complain about the winter; it might be one of the most common winter pastimes.

A packed bike rack at the Winter Cycling Congress

There are legitimate reasons for people to feel trapped during the winter. Winter, and the snow that comes with it, can pose considerable accessibility issues. Sidewalks can often be impassable with snow, or treacherous with ice. Interestingly, cycling has actually been seen as a mobility aid for many people with disabilities. Folks who find it difficult to walk have used cycling as a way to get around their communities. I have a neurological disorder, called HNPP, which, amongst other impacts, has weakened the muscles in my feet and legs, making me very susceptible to twisted ankles. This risk increases with icy sidewalks. Winter cycling has kept me physically healthy, mentally well, and has helped me avoid injuries.

But, I can’t deny the risks associated with winter biking. Studded tires can help with traction, but they won’t do anything to save me from getting hit by a car. There’s a extra level of vigilance needed with winter biking. The city I live in doesn’t have much when it comes to cycling infrastructure. The painted bikelanes we do have are often covered with snow that is plowed to keep the roads cleared for cars. Winter cycling really validates the need for good quality cycling infrastructure. Politicians and other decision makers who want to keep residents healthy year round really need to understand just how important cycling infrastructure is.

Snow in a painted bike lane. Notice how clear the road is…

The enormous benefits of winter cycling is what keeps me cycling year round, despite a lack of infrastructure. But, I do hope our cities, particularly winter cities, move quickly on building separated bike lanes.

For as long as I can remember, winter was something I loathed. Winter cycling changed that for me. It helps me start my day in a fun way, keeps me healthy (in all aspects), and makes the winter more accessible.

If you’re interested in winter cycling, I encourage you to reach out to your local bike shop or bike advocacy organization. I am sure they will help you. And, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I hope you give winter cycling a shot. I promise you’ll be better for it.

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