In honour of the fact that it is Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand, we wanted to take the time out to talk about this highly important subject that is dear to our hearts.
Here at Fierce, we are huge advocates of mountain biking for mental health - something which we will discuss later in this article. It is an essential part of our toolbox for tough times and has the unfaltering ability to turn our grey skies blue, which is why we love it so much!
In this article, we are going to take a walk-through mental health and why it is so important. We are also going to take a look at one of the most significant mental health issues of our time – stress. We will look at what stress is, offer some helpful tips to reduce stress in your life, and provide you with ideas and resources to help improve your mental health (clue – it involves bikes!).
With the global pandemic of COVID-19 in full swing, now more than ever, our mental health is paramount. Whilst things are improving, mental health can be a taboo topic, and the stigma around mental illness is real. For example, here in New Zealand, it is illegal to publicly report on suicide so as not to influence the behaviour of other vulnerable persons. Whilst this is understandable; unfortunately, it also minimises the issue at hand, decreases awareness and prevents open and honest discussion about what can be done to support these same people.
Instead of this brush-it-under-the-carpet approach, we believe that the best way we can improve our mental health, and that of others around us is to educate ourselves.
Even if you don’t struggle or suffer with your own mental health problems, be aware that others may be doing, especially now. Check-in with your friends, ask if they are OK, be prepared to listen and don’t be afraid to speak up if you need some support. Let’s cultivate a culture of openness where we feel safe to say, “Yeah, nah… I’m not OK.”
The more knowledge and tools we have available to us, the better we can care for ourselves and, likewise, be a support for those who may be finding things challenging.
With that in mind, you will find that throughout this article, that we mention by name some products, companies or services that you may find useful. It is important to note we receive no payment or other benefits for these recommendations, as always, we keep it real - our thoughts are our own. If a product or service is mentioned here, it is because we have personal experience of it and believe it may prove a helpful tool for you or someone you know.
Finally, please note that the information and suggestions given in this article are designed to educate and inform only and should not be regarded as medical advice. It goes without saying that if you require more immediate support, we recommend that you seek the help of a qualified mental health professional or reach out to the appropriate organisation. We have included a number of links and resources at the end of this article for those who wish to learn more or need this support.
We’ve all heard of the term “mental health” but what exactly is it and why is it so important?
Mental health is a term used to describe a persons emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It determines how we respond to stress, interact with others and make decisions, and is just as important as our physical health; we can’t function properly without one or the other.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “...a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Problems with mental health can show up in a myriad of ways and can affect our mood, behaviour and thoughts. There are many early warning signs to look out for, but if mental health issues are not addressed, they can lead to more serious problems.
Common early warning signs include:
- Prolonged low mood or sadness
- Being quiet or withdrawn
- Excessive anxiety and worrying
- Changes in eating patterns/weight
- Sleep problems
- Emotional outbursts
- Problems with concentration or logical thought
- Substance abuse (alcohol/medications/drugs)
In 2018, WHO estimated that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion USD per year and wrote that, “mental health problems are a growing public health concern. Depression is now the leading cause of disability and ill-health worldwide, increasing the use of substance misuse and suicide”.
The personal, social and economic costs of poor mental health are high. So-much-so that WHO have declared a Special Initiative for Mental Health for the period 2019-2023 with the vision of helping all people achieve the highest standard of mental health and wellbeing - an objective that couldn’t have come at a better time.
The terms mental health and mental illness are often confused, but, in fact, are quite different.
Just like with physical health, we all have mental health, and it can vary from individual to individual. In contrast, mental illness refers to specific conditions which can be diagnosed via a set of specific criteria. Examples of diagnosable mental illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and OCD.
Often, we envisage that a person with mental illness must always display symptoms and have poor mental health, but this is not the case. As with everyone, mental health is a continuum, and it is possible a person may have a significant mental illness but also good mental health, and so their life is not significantly affected. Another person may have the same mental illness but have poor mental health, and therefore they experience a greater range of challenges in their day-to-day life.
The Mental Wellness Dual Continuum.
Throughout a lifetime, only some people will be diagnosed with mental illness (anxiety and depression being two of the most common), yet, everyone will experience challenges with their mental health or wellbeing, even if infrequently.
What is most important to remember is that no matter the situation, everyone has the ability to live well with the correct tools and support.
Ahhh.... stress. We know it well!
Stress is a response to a threat (real or imagined) that activates the body’s fight or flight mechanisms. You’ve likely experienced this stress response - the one that kicks in and pumps your body full of adrenaline when the family prankster jumps out and spooks you unexpectedly.
Back in our cave-dwelling days, this stress response was responsible for keeping us alive and prevented us from becoming a predator’s lunch. These days however, whilst we’ve evolved, our physiology is still running scared on the lookout for sabre-toothed tigers.
In modern life, these tigers come in the form of money worries, traffic jams and workplace politics. Stress has been dubbed the disease of the modern man, we have more information and technology available to us than ever before, yet the incidence of stress-related disease is increasing year on year.
Prolonged stress can quickly lead to a decline in both physical and mental health, and whilst stress itself is not necessarily indicative of poor mental health, mental health issues may arise if it is not managed. Anxiety, for example, is a common response to stress. WHO estimates that depression and anxiety disorders alone cost the global economy US$1 trillion per year - a figure Jeff Bezos can only dream of!
In 2018, the UK Mental Health Foundation undertook a study of 4,619 people, where a whopping 74% reported that, at some point in that year, they had felt so stressed they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. 51% of those adults reported feeling depressed, 61% reported feeling anxious, and a concerning 32% said they had suicidal thought or feelings.
As well as our psychological wellbeing, stress can also affect our physical wellbeing as 46% of people surveyed reported that they eat less healthily or eat more when stressed and/or increased their intake of alcohol, smoking or both. Many of us have likely experienced these very same issues.
There are many causes of stress; debt, health conditions, social pressures, body image and housing, (to name just a few) and what causes stress for one person may not stress another, but its effects on the body are universal, predictable, and, if left ignored, can have serious health consequences.
Leading nutritionist and founder of charitable foundation Food For the Brain Patrick Holford says, “As well as generating unpleasant emotional sensations, stress triggers a cascade of hormones and chemicals that, over time, accelerate ageing, encourage inflammation and degeneration, and increase the risk of disease.” ...oh, yay.
The stress response puts you into overdrive to deal with a short-term emergency, but remaining in overdrive is very draining, and remaining there is likely to leave you feeling exhausted.
Stress is regulated in the body via the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA axis). These three areas of the body are responsible for producing several important neurotransmitters and hormones that help us to regulate the body in times of stress. For example, you’ve likely heard of cortisol. Cortisol is produced from the adrenal glands, that sit just atop your kidneys, in response to stress.
When a stressor is detected, the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary gland which signals to the adrenals to produce cortisol. The thing is, your body doesn’t know the difference between real or perceived stress and there are even some molecules that can set this cascade in motion (we’re looking at you caffeine!).
Now, before you panic, we aren’t about to say you can’t enjoy your daily cup of Joe (why is it even called that?!) if that’s your thing but, it’s best to understand what these substances do to your body, especially if you are a person who is prone to stress.
If you do have a lot on your plate, cutting back on caffeine, perhaps by making the switch to green tea, would be something your HPA axis would appreciate. Green tea still contains caffeine but also some lovely antioxidants and the calming amino acid L-theanine so it can reduce jitters whilst still being mildly energising.
There are several incredible molecules out there that can begin to rebalance your HPA axis (macamides and endocannabinoids, for example), but it is important to view stress management holistically, as a whole. That is to say, there is little point targeting the HPA axis without reduction of the stressor itself, so keep reading for some tips on ways to reduce stress and increase mental wellbeing.
If you would like to learn more about your HPA axis and its regulation, check out the links to our resources below.
No one likes the feeling of being stressed and, if you are, it’s likely to show up in your day to day life and in your interactions with others.
We’ve all been in the situation when someone is talking to us, and our mind has wandered off to something we have to do later that day; feed the kids, walk the dog, file the report we forgot yesterday. When we finally return to the room, we are left trying to piece back together the bits of conversation we missed or, worse, having to ask the person to repeat themselves. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away with this and won’t upset anyone too much but, more likely, you’ll appear distracted and uninterested to your conversation partner, which may leave them feeling frustrated or annoyed. If you’ve been on the receiving end of this, you’ll understand how it can feel.
The problem with stress is that it starts to show up all over the place in our day-to-day lives. How often when under the pump have you snapped at your partner or kids when, ordinarily, you’d handle things differently? How often have you reached for the chocolate because, at that moment, it’s exactly what you need to feel better?
As a single event, actions like these don’t have to be a problem, but, if they are happening regularly, the impact on your relationships and health are going to become apparent. This is why it is so important to be aware of stress and manage it before it takes control of us - chronic stress is no fun for anyone.
By now, you’ve probably realised the importance of limiting stress as a means of improving mental wellbeing, but what else can you do to ensure optimal mental health?
We can’t stop telling people about the benefits of mountain biking for mental health - and now we've got the data to prove it!
A 2017 study conducted by cycling UK found that, of 11,400 surveyed, 91% said off-road cycling was important for their mental health and wellbeing.
In 2018, the journal Frontiers of Psychology published, “Why Do You Ride?: A Characterisation of Mountain Bikers, Their Engagement Methods, and Perceived Links to Mental Health and Well-Being”.
This study looked more in-depth at peoples’ motivation to ride. It surveyed a total of 1484 mountain bikers, of which 80% (n=1244) were men and 205 were women. The participants varied in age with the majority being over 35 (n=991) and riders of the “non-DH” style of riding (n=1030).
This study found that:
99.8 % of participants said they love being outdoors.
98% reported being outdoors helped them to de-stress.
50% of participants indicated the social aspect of MTB is important to them.
90% said MTB makes them feel good about who they are.
81% said MTB is something they do to help them deal with negative thoughts or feelings.
95% said they would find it depressing if they could no longer ride due to illness or injury.
93% of riders agreed with the statement “When I ride my everyday worries fade away”.
34% agreed with the statement “I have mild mental health problems – stress, anxiety, depression – and use MTB as a coping strategy”.
7.3% agreed they suffer more severe mental health issues and use MTB as a coping strategy.
Can we just pause a minute and read those statistics again? Go ahead. I’ll wait….
Interestingly, the study also found that more females indicated mountain biking helped them with mild mental health difficulties than men. It also noted it was “a
Interestingly, the study also found that more females indicated mountain biking helped them with mild mental health difficulties than men. It also noted it was “a crucial point that such a large proportion of our survey participants proactively use mountain biking as a coping strategy… a recognition that mountain biking could be acting as a substantial protective factor in their lives”.
I’m sure many of you reading this would agree there is no “could” about it!
On top of this (yep, there’s more!), there have been many studies which have highlighted the social aspects of mountain biking and other adventure sports (Willig 2008, IMBA 2010, Cycling UK 2017). This is oh-so-important, as isolation and loneliness are well-known risk factors for poor mental health and research has shown that those that connect with others regularly have better mental health overall.
To recap, an overwhelming majority of the research participants in these studies reported multiple positive mental health benefits thanks to their participation in mountain biking. These benefits include improved mood, decreased stress and worry, and increased self-esteem.
With data like this, the real question is: can you afford NOT to ride?!
OK, let’s face it, you probably didn’t need us to tell you MTB is great for your mental health (sorry Science, we kinda knew that already!) but maybe you’ve got a reluctant friend, partner or parent even who you have been trying to convince to get on their bike. Now, rather than you telling them over and over, let the stats speak for themselves.
Not convinced? In 2010, The International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) conducted a survey “Women of Mountain Biking” and, of the 710 women surveyed, 56% said that being invited by a woman to ride would help to get more women into mountain biking.
So, we ask you, how many people out there are struggling that aren’t aware of the wonders of MTB for mental health?! How many of your female friends or co-workers do you see stressed out or feeling blue? Could you share this article with one of them? Could you teach someone the basics?
In 2019, the study Female Perspectives on Mountain Biking found that non-experienced women cited not knowing where to ride and not knowing which trails were safe as reasons that prevented them from learning to ride, along with a desire to try the sport before investing in a bike. If you are in the fortunate position of being a multi-bike household, could you share the love (and a bike) one afternoon and show someone green the greens?!
Speaking of greens….
You may have heard it said that the gut is the body’s second brain. Well, in the case of serotonin, our body’s happy-hormone, it’s actually the first.
Research has shown that around 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, not the brain, so what we eat and our overall gut health can have a considerable impact on our mental health.
The bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in our digestive tract (our microbiome) are responsible for a whole host of functions, not just the digestion of our food. For example, did you know that the bacteria in your gut can influence your immune cell function and how well you can respond to an infection?
Some of our gut bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria, produce an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and a crucial building block for its production. Without tryptophan, there is no serotonin. Without serotonin, things go downhill pretty quickly – and not in the fun way!
A depressed mood, negative thoughts, low energy, irritability, sleep disturbances, cravings for sweets and reduced libido are just some of the effects associated with a shortage of serotonin. In short, best avoided, so take care of that microbiome!
If you are looking to boost the health of your microbiome, probiotics and prebiotics can be a great place to start, as well as increasing the amount of fruits and veggies in your diet and reducing sugar and processed foods.
What we eat can disrupt and change the bacterial colonies within our digestive tract, and without high levels of these tryptophan producing bacteria, serotonin production may be impeded. It’s not just our diet which can cause issues, antibiotics and other types of medications can also have a negative effect on our gut microbiome. If we want to remain in optimal mental health, eating a healthy, whole foods diet rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and amino acids is all-important, as well as being aware of the other substances we put into our bodies.
Probiotics are living bacteria and yeasts which, when taken in the right amount, can improve your health.
Common bacterial strains included in probiotic supplements include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. When it comes to probiotics, not all probiotics are created equal, so it is important to do your research. High CFU counts, enteric coatings and purchasing from a reputable company can all increase the likelihood of the probiotic making a difference. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for!
Whilst we know that what we eat has an impact on our mood, changing our habits can be hard and it is easier said than done, especially when we feel down. We want to boost our mood and often crave sugary or salty carb-rich foods and, once we eat them, we can feel better - for a short time.
What really goes on when we satisfy our cravings in this way, is that we give the brain a nice hit of dopamine, our pleasure neurotransmitter. Stimulating our dopamine circuits can feel good temporarily but rarely leads to genuine feelings of happiness – for that we need serotonin.
Unfortunately, reaching for sugary carbs for comfort regularly can have catastrophic long-term effects. Studies have shown that those of us who experience chronic stress double the risk of developing diabetes due to poor diet and lifestyle choices associated with it.
If you are looking for ways in which you can improve mental wellness through diet, here are our top tips:
Aim to keep your blood sugar even by eating regularly throughout the day. Don’t skip meals and eat before you become too hungry.
Choose slow-release carbs rather than refined foods or sugars. Brown rice and quinoa are the way to go!
Eat protein with each meal. It will keep you fuller for longer and reduce the need to snack.
Snack before the cravings hit. Better to eat some carrot and hummus before you get hungry and demolish an entire bar of Dairy Milk on the way home!
Find ways to increase omega-3 intake. Ideally through oily fish, like salmon and sardines, or via supplementation
Reduce alcohol intake. Whilst many think alcohol can improve mood, it is actually a depressant which can induce anxiety and increase stress.
Obviously, whilst we are super interested in eating for wellness, we aren’t experts! If you are keen to know more about how you can improve your mental health through diet, we recommend starting at foodforthebrain.org. We’ve also included a full list of references and resources at the end of this article for further reading, so be sure to check them out.
There are many ways in which you can work to improve your mental health, the key is to start small and go slow.
It is impossible to write an article about stress reduction and mental health without mentioning mindfulness, meditation and gratitude. The benefits of these practices have been known in the ancient world for millennia yet, more recently, they have been proven by science.
Meditation often carries with it a connotation of sitting still for hours in silence which can be off-putting for many, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Proper meditation can happen whilst walking, and, whilst riding your bike. It’s about tuning in to your senses and the present moment, getting out of that head and calming the mind. We recommend this TED talk by Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, as an excellent place to start.
You can take the first step towards improving your mental health today, just by stopping for one minute, closing your eyes and focusing on your breath.
We recently learned about a fantastic mental health resource developed here in our very own hometown, Christchurch. The Kite Program is a handy little app that offers support on a whole range of topics, from leadership to relationships and finance. Unlike other apps, Kite is never intrusive or demands your time, it simply lets you know “I’m here if you need me”, which only endears you to check in with it all the more. You can choose the topics you wish to work through, and the daily information is restricted to no more than a minute or two of reading to be sure not to overwhelm. Kite was initially developed as a support program for Mums and has gone on to achieve global success. Less than the price of a pint (and much better for your health!) it's packed full of information that everyone could benefit from reading - we highly recommend checking it out.
As we said earlier, it is crucial to take a holistic approach to stress reduction and improving mental health, just being aware of your current state of mind is a fantastic start. It is important to be kind to yourself too, change takes time, and it is better to make small and consistent changes than feel overwhelmed by the options and do nothing—every little helps.
Sometimes, when we are struggling with our mental health, it can be hard to think of things that might bring us joy and even harder to think about doing some of those things. To overcome these problems, we recommend creating a joy list which you can access at any time to remind yourself of the things you love, that bring you joy, that you can do when things feel a bit "meh".
Our joy list:
Riding bikes! (obviously)
Drinking a cup of jasmine tea whilst reading on the sofa
Playtime with the cat/dog.
Going for a walk in nature
Colouring - yep, it's for big kids too!
A little Yoga session– our fave is Yoga with Adriene
Taking a hot bubble bath
Once you’ve got your joy list, all you have to do is keep in on hand and make a conscious effort to do more of what makes you happy. We try to aim for one joyful thing a day, even if it's just for 5 minutes. By doing so, even when you're having a bad day, you'll be in the habit of making time for those things and find them easier to do when you need them most.
If you’re still reading this, thank you for sticking with us. We wanted to do this challenging topic justice and hope you’ve found it interesting; but in truth, we’ve only just scratched the surface which is why we've provided lots of useful links below for you to explore at your leisure.
If you think you may be suffering from stress or struggle with your mental health, we encourage you to make use of these links and resources and, if you know others who could benefit from reading this article, we would be so deeply grateful if you could share it with them or on via social media if you feel you can - you never know who you might help.
Our hope for this article is that it may inspire more women to add mountain biking to their toolbox for managing their mental health and wellbeing, if it encourages just one woman to give it a try, then we'll be overjoyed.
We are only on this planet for a very short amount of time, and we think you'll agree, that time should be filled with joy and happiness.
In other words... life’s too short not to ride bikes!
As always friends, we love hearing from you so please feel free to add to the comments below. We read and respond to all of them personally.
Mental Health organisations and helplines
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Phone: 13 11 14 24 hour telephone counselling service.
Text: 0477 13 11 14 (6pm - midnight AEST)
SANE - Mental Health Charity
MIND - mental health charity
How stress affects the body - Dr Sharon Horesh Bergquist
Food for the Brain - Charitable foundation dedicated to advancing nutrition for mental health
MTB & mental health
Women of MTB - International Mountain Bike Association survey
Female Perspectives on Mountain Biking - Rebecca Irvin, University of Arkansas
Healthy Eating and depression - PDF resource by MHFNZ
The second brain
The Science of Gratitude - University of Berkley White Paper
Chételat G, Lutz A, Arenaza-Urquijo E, Collette F, Klimecki O, Marchant N. Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and well-being in aging?. Alzheimers Res Ther. 2018;10(1):57. Published 2018 Jun 22. doi:10.1186/s13195-018-0388-5
Hillard CJ, Beatka M, Sarvaideo J. Endocannabinoid Signaling and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Compr Physiol. 2016;7(1):1-15. Published 2016 Dec 6. doi:10.1002/cphy.c160005
Hoge EA, Bui E, Marques L, et al. Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder: effects on anxiety and stress reactivity. J Clin Psychiatry. 2013;74(8):786-792. doi:10.4088/JCP.12m08083
Levula, A., Wilson, A. & Harré, M. The association between social network factors and mental health at different life stages. Qual Life Res 25, 1725–1733 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11136-015-1200-7
Lutz B, Marsicano G, Maldonado R, Hillard CJ. The endocannabinoid system in guarding against fear, anxiety and stress. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015;16(12):705-718. doi:10.1038/nrn4036
Tasker J, Endogenous Cannabinoids Take the Edge off Neuroendocrine Responses to Stress, Endocrinology, Volume 145, Issue 12, 1 December 2004, Pages 5429–5430, https://doi.org/10.1210/en.2004-1218
Young SN. How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2007;32(6):394-399.