Good for the soul: The Cycle to Health scheme

If you’ve ever had the feeling that it’s only your cycling that’s keeping you in the right headspace, then you are not alone. I’ve certainly realised in recent years that I need to ride my bike, preferably in nature, to avoid slipping into grumpiness and negativity.

But while I suspected the same was true for a lot of others, I was astonished by the results of the recent Cycling UK and OpenMTB survey into off-road cycling habits. We asked respondents to rank how important cycling was for their mental health – from not important to very important – and a huge 66 per cent of people selected “very important”.

I’m thrilled this has come out so strongly in the survey, because I think it’s going to be really useful in arguing for more resources, more access and more attention for cycling as a social good.

It was not long after getting the results that I heard a piece on BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme about an interesting scheme being run in Inverness, using cycling to help people struggling with issues like anxiety and depression and at risk of social isolation. I dropped the organisers Andrew McKay and Amandla Taylor a line, and here is the resulting Q&A…

Me: Tell us a little about the cafe to start with?

Velocity Café and Bicycle Workshop is located on Crown Avenue in Inverness, within easy walking or cycling distance of the High Street. Velocity is a social enterprise that was set up in 2012 to promote healthy, happy lifestyles through cycling. The café focuses on providing affordable, healthy locally-produced food as well as excellent coffee and home-baked cakes in a warm and friendly environment. The workshop is open access three days a week when members of the public can come and fix their own bikes, book one-to-one mechanic assisted sessions or drop their bike off for service or repair.

How long has the scheme been running and how did it come about? Was there a specific inspiration?

The Women’s Cycle to Health project was started in August 2014 with the aim of providing a supportive group environment for women who were looking to improve their mental and physical well-being. The project was inspired by our belief that regular cycling can play a part in helping us to live happier, healthier lives. Mental health issues affect most of us at some point in our lives and taking part in sociable, outdoor activity is known to help people to feel better and to cope with the challenges they are facing.

The programme is structured to allow people to build their skills and confidence on a bike in an enjoyable way and provides support to people who would like to ride their bikes more often. Given the success of the Women’s Cycle to Health project, it was clear that a similar scheme for men would be well-received and beneficial. The Men’s Cycle to Health project got underway during 2016 and is currently gathering momentum with the first groups completing their initial four-week block just before Christmas 2016.

Social rides and mechanics workshops are under way and more and more folks are getting in touch with us now, looking to get involved.

How many people are involved and what do you do with them?

We form small groups (a maximum of four per group) and meet up once a week for four weeks to go for a group ride. We welcome people of all ages above 18, all cycling abilities and fitness levels and aim to place people in groups where they will feel comfortable.

We explore routes in and around Inverness, from traffic-free and low-traffic cycle routes to canal tow-paths and forestry tracks. We aim to help people to feel comfortable on a bike and to build confidence, as well as enjoying the social aspect of riding in a group and spending time outdoors, getting some exercise. After the initial four-week block, we encourage people to stay involved by attending our weekly evening and weekend social rides. Additionally, we run a monthly bike maintenance session in our workshop which is open to everyone who has engaged with the project.

How do people get to you? 

Anyone in the local area who feels like they could boost their well-being by getting active and meeting new people are welcome to self-refer to our projects. Local healthcare professionals and staff at a broad range of support services are also encouraged to refer clients who are interested in getting involved. People also find out about us through publicity in local (Inverness Courier) and national media (BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme) and through the café which is a social hub as well as being a meeting place for creative activities and interest groups in the local area.

Green exercise is becoming a bit of a hot topic in health circles.

You run separate schemes for men & women? What’s the thinking there?

Initially the project was designed for women only in order to create a safe and welcoming environment as individuals from different backgrounds and with different life experiences may have felt uncomfortable participating in mixed-sex cycling groups. The model worked really well and has been replicated for the men’s projects. In the earlier stages in particular, it may feel easier for some participants to discuss their experiences with members of the same sex.

Following the initial four weeks, people are encouraged to stay involved by participating in regular, supported evening and weekend social rides and workshop sessions. If people develop an enthusiasm for cycling, Velocity is the starting point for a number of regular inclusive social rides which are non-gender-specific. We can help link people into a variety of different cycling groups if they are keen to stay involved.

What benefits are you seeing in participants?

Participants build confidence, overcome social isolation and take an interest in being physically active. They are able to overcome barriers to choosing to cycle regularly and learn skills in riding and maintaining bike. People who get involved in the project form friendships and a connection with Velocity as a welcoming social space.

In terms of mental well-being, people’s scores on a standardised self-assessment scale show that they are generally feeling better about themselves and about life in general.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are known to be alleviated in many cases by regular, moderate physical exercise and our experiences certainly support this. Many participants report feeling happier, more motivated and more confident and that’s what it’s all about. People are also more motivated to use their bikes for functional journeys instead of driving or using public transport.

Do you have any thoughts on the specific benefits of off-road cycling?

Off-road cycling can be particularly enjoyable and constructive; particularly when people are looking to develop confidence, sharing space with motorised traffic can be a little intimidating. Traffic-free routes also allow us to cycle side-by-side which makes conversation easier. The social aspect of our group rides makes them especially enjoyable.

Also, the off-road routes we use tend to be in forested areas or on canal tow-paths where wildlife is abundant. Diverse bird life and the chance of seeing aquatic mammals such as dolphins, porpoises and otters adds a special dimension to our cycle runs. Being among the trees can also have a calming, mood-lifting effect; ‘forest time’ or ‘green time’ are recognised as being beneficial to people experiencing mild to moderate mental health issues.

We also aim to make participants aware of the safer, quieter routes around town in order to show how easy and enjoyable it can be to make every day journeys in the local area by bike, rather than using motorised transport.

What basis is the scheme run on?

Velocity is a social enterprise; the Café and Workshop generate their own income while the projects, including Men’s and Women’s cycle to health are donor-funded. The Cycle to Health projects are funded through the Smarter Choices Smarter Places fund; a Transport Scotland (Scottish Government) pot of money which is administered by Paths for All and disbursed to Velocity by The Highland Council. Smarter Choices Smarter Places funding supports projects that promote behaviour change that increases active, sustainable transport and thus contributes to reducing the number of private car journeys.

Have you had any “official” interest in it?

Aside from the above organisations who represent national and local government, we’ve had a lot of interest from local agencies and organisations in the local area including third sector organisations that offer mental health services, academic organisations including the University of Stirling and the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Is there a next step? More of the same?

We hope to secure funding to continue with the projects in their current format and will likely explore opportunities to expand the reach of these projects. Conducting comprehensive monitoring and evaluation and amassing a robust set of data which reflects the projects’ impacts will be important in attracting interest in, and funding for, the Cycle to Health model.

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