• Mal

Life Lessons from the Trail #6: Exercise Can Help Manage Stress and Depression


Historically hitting the trails and getting away from life's stresses has been a way for me to manage my depression.

The Consequences of Being Busy

Before I get into this particular piece, you might be wondering about what happened to lessons #2, #3, #4 and #5. Well, some of those are half started and some of the other ones were part of a plan. But it can be hard to write about these types of topics in a structured fashion, particularly when life gets busy, which tends to impact my ability to do creative stuff. So, as I mentioned last week in another post I'm just going to write about what I feel like writing when time permits. And so here we are.


That's not to say that I'm feeling particularly stressed or am battling depression at the moment. Actually, the second part of that statement isn't quite true - for those of us that have been impacted by depression, the reality (or at least my reality) is that it's not something that ever really gets healed and goes away. That's because in the main, the experiences that you have with depression become part of your identity - but that's a life lesson for another time. This particular post is about something you can do to help manage it.


The reason that I'm writing about this particular topic today is because my life, from time to time, gets busy. And when I say from time to time, I'm really meaning for a few years at a time. Suffice to say that my adult job combined with mountain bike coaching and family life in general mean that it would be easy to become stressed about everything that needs to be done.


However, at least for me, the ability to manage the potential demands of what I feel life asks of me in a way that prevents me from becoming stressed is important. Because the step beyond is a very dark place that can be difficult to climb out of.


The Mountain Biking High

But what does this this have to do with mountain bike riding, I hear you ask? Well, before I had gotten back into mountain biking, now over seven years ago, there had been a number of events going on in my life that were leading me towards depression. And while I'd previously had activities that I used to do to keep my mind in the right place, ultimately to resolve some of the challenges that were going on in my life, I made the choice to let go of certain parts of my life and identity - which sent me spiralling into the depths of a darkness that is impossible to describe. The specifics of all of that aren't really all that important, and they're certainly not a secret. I've shared all that publicly before, but if you'd like to hear more I'm always happy to discuss my experiences battling depression - it's just not the focus of this post.

The mountain biking high isn't about getting height on a mountain bike, but that's part of it. After all, I'm not really likely to be thinking about life's stresses at this point.

Anyway, a series of unplanned coincidences led me to dusting off the cobwebs of a ten year old mountain bike that had been thoroughly abused by my two sons. And I very quickly found myself taking to the trails regularly as it seemed to be one of the few places where the depression was quietest, if not completely silent. And just to put this into perspective, my first ride out entailed a mere five kilometres in which I was almost ready to throw up attempting to ride up a fire road followed by being launched over the handle bars three times onto rocky terrain (at which point I began to wonder why people had put rocks on the trail).


But ultimately, no matter how unfit I was or how many times I crashed there were a few things I realised were consistent:

  • When I rode, because I was so busy trying not to run into trees or roll off the side of a cliff while trying to go as fast as I possibly could without throwing up my mind rarely wandered into the dark places where depression affected thoughts would take me;

  • No matter how hard I initially found something, I found with a little bit of determination and perseverance I would eventually get better at it.

  • The harder I pushed myself during a ride, the better I seemed to feel for a longer period of time after a ride;

  • Whenever I crashed, despite the physical pain of an injury, mentally I without fail would always feel better.


Because I would often feel better after mountain bike riding it very quickly became my anti-depressant, hitting the trails at least three times a week for several hours at a time. However after a time I also began to notice that I would have to ride faster or longer or even have a bigger crash to get that relief from depression. But after one particular crash when I came tearing down the side of a narrow trail littered with rocks at high speed, I clipped a tree and shot over the handle bars and opened up a sizeable gash in my arm. Seventeen stitches later despite the post crash euphoria I was feeling while laying on a bed in Emergency, it occurred to me that chasing the "mountain biking high" as I'd begun to know it might turn into something much more serious. And while the depressive part of me wasn't particularly concerned about that, I still cared enough for others to want to look after my family and not place a burden on them.

Immediately after the "17 stiches" crash. Underneath that bandage is a fairly large wound which hid damaged ligaments that stopped fingers in my left hand from working. Riding out the rest of the descent was entertaining!

The Science of Feeling Good

Dr Google was my next stop, where I worked to understand the "Science of Feeling Good" as a particular article called it, supported by other internet based articles which may or may not be the subject of fact. But the information was consistent at least and I was able to learn about four specific chemicals that get released by parts of your brain that help you feel good:

  • Dopamine - A part of your rewards system that makes you feel pleasure when you achieve something or do something you perceive as good. In excess, I think this particular one can form the basis of addiction (as an example, the desire to chase likes and recognition on social media).

  • Serotonin - Released when you feel satisfaction or importance. Interestingly, this one has a lot to do with being at peace or having self-belief and confidence in yourself.

  • Oxytocin - Released when you feel a connection with others, such as a friend group or family (or not depending on how well you get on with your family!)

  • Endorphins - Something that gets released when you either do something you enjoy or gets stimulated to mask pain in your body.


That's a brief summary but for those that are interested in why you might feel good when certain things happen, understanding how those four chemicals impact how you feel can be quite insightful. And while those chemicals are responsible for helping you feel good, an absence or imbalance of those chemicals can also impact your behaviour in a very negative sense, such as contributing to addictive or depressive behaviour.


In my case, amidst the noise of dark thoughts, I manage to reason out that the changes that I had made to my life at the beginning of my depression had resulted in a potential chemical imbalance from not having enough being released, specifically dopamine and oxytocin. In the case of dopamine, eliminating my tendency to over achieve, a choice I made in an attempt to be a better human, likely impacted the dopamine being released into my brain. And the other change I made, reducing my social connections, again in an attempt to be a better person, may have impacted the amount of oxytocin being released.

Understanding a little bit about how brain chemistry works can help you put a strategy to help manage your mental state.

The lack of both these brain chemicals I suspect largely contributed / still contribute to my personal battle with depression. However what mountain biking did was to temporarily supplement the feel good effect of my brain with endorphins, and to a lesser extent, serotonin. I mention serotonin in this context because it's hard to feel important when you're also feeling depressed. But for the moments when I'm riding in the present and not thinking about anything else, I'm at peace which is likely to help with the serotonin.


The endorphins I think were the real contributors to the mountain biking high though. Released to help mask pain, whenever I had a decent crash, the endorphins would not only help take away some of the physical pain, but also some of the mental anguish going on in my head. But I also began to realise that when you improve your fitness to become stronger, there is a process of destruction and rebuilding that goes on in your body that also causes the release of endorphins to happen. So all I really needed to do to get a good release of endorphins was to ride harder - climb a bigger hill, pedal faster, or find a challenging downhill (because that's actually more physically demanding than you might realise). And if I crashed, I'd even get bonus endorphins! Just kidding... sort of.


And so mountain bike riding became (and to a degree still is) a large part of how I climbed out of depression and continue to manage life's stresses. But that's not the end of the story....


Life Beyond the Trails

A few years ago I began to feel like I'd been hiding from the world for long enough and that I really should go and pursue something meaningful. Not that what I had been doing - it was just that I felt like I should be doing more for the world. So I went searching for an adult job which would hopefully allow me to help make the world a better place beyond what I could do on my own. And that happened, and within a day of starting the job it became clear that combined with mountain bike coaching on the weekends my ability to ride the amount I historically needed to in order to manage the "black dog" as it's sometimes called was in jeopardy.


The time to ride was just not there anymore. And not withstanding the minimum period of a two hour ride to get the mountain biking high, just getting to and from the trails was also time I didn't have to spare. So I went in search for an alternate physical activity that might simulate the same sort of high I would achieve while mountain bike riding. Somehow, despite the plethora of exercise activities that exist it the world, I settled on something that I've historically hated and not been good at: running.

So I don't have any photos of my running (because that would be weird). But I do have this photo of me doing a trail run... carrying my bike out.

Logically running made sense, at least from most points. It was convenient - I could do it from just leaving the house addressing the time poor issue. And It was an activity that I'd always found hard, challenging and physically demanding so I would likely get the endorphin release. The downsides were that I'd always found running very unexciting so my sense of satisfaction from running wouldn't likely be there, impacting the amount of serotonin released.


But I persisted for a time, and for a time running helped. Not all the time, but that was because for a few years I really didn't enjoy running at all and so it wasn't an activity that I would do as consistently as mountain biking. And so I found over this period that while not dropping back into depression, there were times when I felt stressed and would come close to the edge of the chasm.


Alternative Exercise

There's more than one way to skin a cat, as the old saying goes... which is actually kind of morbid now that I think about it, and a lot of younger people probably won't have heard of it. But I digress....


I find at odd times fate has a habit of stepping in to help you out and during a random Uber ride home where Kerry and I were discussing starting up yoga as another means of helping with our physical and mental well being, our Uber driver piped up and mentioned she was a yoga instructor. A few weeks later we found ourselves in her living room with a few other people. But not contorting ourselves into impossible body positions (although I'm assured this is coming at some point in the future), but focusing on our breathing and mindfulness. While at first seeming strange, I remained open minded and went with the flow to see where things would lead.

Learning how to breathe and meditate through Yoga has been another method of helping me through challenging situations.

At this point, I'd re-started trying to run on a regular basis, and the strangest of things began to happen. The breathing techniques I learnt from yoga began to help me with my running. And after a period of time, with a little bit of persistence I was happily managing a 5km and 10km run once a week. But the other thing I began to notice was that often while I was running, I would reach a zone where I felt like I was at peace, enjoying the scenery as I plodded along at my relatively unimpressive pace, lost in thought of whatever entered my mind. It was different to mountain biking, but the effects were the same.


Conversely, I began to feel that as my fitness increased, I was able to perform some of the breathing exercises and poses in the yoga classes better. And as I got better at yoga, and as I began to run a little bit further and a little bit faster, I began to feel a muted sense of achievement, or, as I like to think of it, a more controlled release of dopamine.


The Need for More

One of the more interesting things I've found with using exercise as a mechanism to manage stress and depression is when you need a stronger dose to cope with challenging periods of life, you get it through more exercise. If you happen to follow me on Strava, it's actually possible to see the points in which I might be stressed, because the points in which my exercise regime increases is usually a response to challenging periods of life. And each time it happens, I find that I actually have to extend beyond what I'd previously been doing. Specifically right now, that means running further and faster.


The current period started from around the end of September last year... and hasn't finished yet. A combination of work and life events saw me increasing from running twice a week to three, sometimes four times a week. It was also the point at which I began to increase the weekly distance I was running, with October becoming the first month where I ran more than 100km. In November something happened that really annoyed me which resulted me running 17km one morning, making me wonder if I could do a half marathon. At the same time, a series of car problems meant I began riding my bike from Robina to Nerang and back for coaching and social ride sessions.

Running a little bit further than a half marathon once a month is now part of my stress / depression management regime.

From December last year I've been running a half marathon once a month along with continuing to get to the mountain bike park using pedal power (although sometimes assisted by electricity). Mostly thought, I've been able to manage life's stresses through increasing exercise - which is to say that as a minimum I'm doing at least one activity a day for a minimum of 45 minutes. And when you think of it in those terms, it's actually a pretty small price to pay to not fall back into a depressive state. In fact, why wouldn't any of us want to exercise at least once a day for that period of time?


The increased exercise helped my body and mind respond to any adverse reactions I might have had from dealing with what some might find challenging work and life experiences. I actually get some of my best ideas mid-exercise so it also helps with my work and life activities. And of course, there's the added bonus of being semi-healthy (I say semi because I should probably cut back a bit on the red wine...).


So if you're a little bit stressed or find yourself on the wrong side of the depression chasm, give regular daily exercise a try. You may find that it becomes a very effective way of helping you deal with the regular stresses of life. In the very worst case, you might just find yourself being a little bit fitter and healthier.




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