April 2, 2012

Find your rhythm with a calming spin on two wheels

Published in the March/April issue of Renew

By Aabha Rathee

The next time you run out of milk in the refrigerator, leave the car keys hanging in their usual place. Instead, throw on a helmet, hop onto the bike seat, let your feet find the right rhythm and feel the crisp wind brush against your face as you dash to the supermarket. Doesn’t exactly sound like a chore anymore, does it?

Fitness experts speak to the numerous physical health benefits of cycling, and what better way to stay fit and get calm in one super-healthy go? You have the option of heading out by yourself, sharing your ride with a friend or joining a larger group where you can find new friends and a common ground for conversation.

“It’s the perfect way of simply turning off life’s worries and getting into a peaceful rhythm,” says Mike Ferguson, who runs a Los Angeles-based recovery and behavioral health consultancy and is an experienced road biker. For Ferguson, cycling is not only a great way to get his blood flowing and maintain a healthy heart, but it also brings him closer to nature from a meditative standpoint.

That’s exactly the point that Christine Shrewsbury emphasizes. Shrewsbury, who manages the cycling portion of the annual Ride for Recovery program run by Dawn Farms, a community recovery center in Ypsilanti, Mich., is independently part of a nurses’ cycling team that promotes health and wellness through cycling while raising funds for medical needs.

“It gets you outside,” Shrewsbury says about biking’s biggest benefit. “Instead of slogging on a [workout] machine indoors, you’re out in nature, and you’re at peace.”

Shrewsbury, who has now been in recovery for 32 years, says she gives talks at AA meetings about the benefits of bicycling, including that it’s a healthy way to vent anxiety, nerves or frustration.

A research report quoted by the BBC in February 2011 compared stress levels of people who use bicycles to commute and those who use cars. According to the report by the London-based New Economics Foundation, a think tank that measures economic well-being, “ … studies comparing the experiences of commuting by bicycle and car report that cyclists find their mode of transport at least as flexible and convenient as those who use cars, with lower stress and greater feelings of freedom, relaxation and excitement.”

That principle is used by Kristin Gavin when she and her team of trainers take groups of women—including recovering addicts or those who have suffered some sort of domestic abuse—out for social bicycle rides through her nonprofit, Gearing Up. Gavin, a trained exercise and fitness expert and a bike racer who has ridden internationally, asks her participants to decide on leaving some of their mental baggage behind before they head out. She says it acts as an opportunity for them to blow off some steam.

“It’s a time out from being disappointed and having disappointed,” she says.

Although joining a riding group can be a means of coping with depression and social isolation, the simple act of riding a bike can even begin the process of recovery.

“There are several participants in our programs who tell me, ‘Two wheels is how I have become sober,’” Gavin says.

If you haven’t been on a bike in a few years, find a trainer or a friend who can help you go over the basics and give you company for your first few rides. Physical and emotional safety comes first, irrespective of whether you have thousands of miles under your pedals or have barely crossed 10. Shrewsbury suggests reaching out to people you know from recovery groups because “you’re bound to find someone who’s doing it already or who will grow to like it with you.”

Shrewsbury, who took to serious biking later in life and now takes part in 100-mile fundraisers, adds that it’s important to bike safely by knowing both how to ride around cars and other vehicles as well as around other bikers. You might be inspired, but don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a high-performance bicycle just yet.

“Bikes can be expensive,” says Ferguson, “but they don’t have to be. You can go to a local bike store and rent one or get a secondhand one to start out until you know you’re really serious about it.”

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