How To Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder with Mountain Biking

Take a moment to visualize the changing of the seasons – autumn rain drizzling down upon green-hued leaves, only to reveal the beautiful shades of maroon and gold hidden beneath.  Feel the cooler breeze upon your cheeks as you bundle up for a brisk, two-wheeled jaunt in the nearby woods, the scent of wet dirt …

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Bikepacking the Arizona Trail in November, north of Tucson, AZ. Photo © David Herbold.

Take a moment to visualize the changing of the seasons – autumn rain drizzling down upon green-hued leaves, only to reveal the beautiful shades of maroon and gold hidden beneath.  Feel the cooler breeze upon your cheeks as you bundle up for a brisk, two-wheeled jaunt in the nearby woods, the scent of wet dirt and crushed foliage treating your senses.  The fall can be quite lovely, a cyclic symbol of life’s vibrancy slowing to enter hibernation.

It also signifies a downward spiral of temperatures and weather conditions for many regions in the US.  Days upon days of rain in the pacific northwest, piles of snow in the northeast – while nature lies dormant, so do many of us.  Not only does the weather hamper normal physical activity patterns, it may also have a major effect on mood, with many individuals experiencing depression and anxiety during the off-season months.  This recurring bout of the blues is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)… sounds like a nightmare for someone who mountain bikes.  But… hold the phone… can mountain biking itself be a treatment?  Heck YES.

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Autumn in Bidwell Park, Chico, CA. Photo © Jennifer Herbold.

SAD has been traditionally housed under the clinical category of major depression.  Like some types of major depression, SAD may recur and disappear cyclically with the onset of an unfavorable environmental trigger.  One major cause for the onset of SAD is a reduction in exposure to light (cloudy skies, reduction in hours of sunlight), and a primary treatment used to combat symptoms involves the use of light boxes or light visors.

“The Seattle area is generally very cloudy during the winter,” said Aaron Sublett, a Washington state native, life-long mountain biker, and current Pivot Cycles employee.  “Imagine going for weeks at a time without seeing sunshine. And the clouds are not even interesting. They hang low and are featureless. They don’t even look like clouds! And the drizzle–it doesn’t even really rain. It’s just more of a heavy mist falling from above.”

In contrast to popular belief, a 2016 study conducted at Auburn University partially debunks the existence of SAD altogether, finding no correlation between times of depression onset and location (higher latitudes) or season (winter).  They aren’t the only ones questioning the disorder.  The researchers used a 2006 depression screening conducted by the CDC that surveyed 34,000 adults over the course of one year.  In addition, they pointed out the bias among previous surveys used to diagnose SAD, leading individuals to answer questions that support evidence for its prevalence.

But, the results are not conclusive, and the symptoms associated with SAD are not exactly the same as those experienced with major depression.  The findings may also support the fact that SAD can hit during the summer… have you ever been to Phoenix in June?  Temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and who wants to spend time outdoors in THAT?  Training has to be done in the early morning (i.e. 5am)–mid-day is often not an option. Not only is the quick threat of heat stroke downright dangerous, it motivates people to be cooped up in artificial lighting and A/C for several months until the hellish heat subsides.

Symptoms associated with major depression, versus SAD (both winter and summer patterns).
Symptoms associated with major depression, versus SAD (both winter and summer patterns).

For several decades, exercise has been investigated as a viable treatment for mood disorders.  A meta-analysis conducted by the research team of Dr. Gary M. Cooney of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital Division of Psychiatry in Edinburgh, UK, analyzed 39 studies comparing the use of exercise to standard treatment, placebo, pharmacological, or psychological therapies for adults diagnosed with depression.  They found that exercise is more effective when compared to no therapy at all; it may be more effective than bright light therapy; and, the outcomes using an exercise program are similar to those of pharmacological and psychological treatments.  Earlier in 2001, a study published in the British Medical Journal came to similar conclusions.  And, more science could be listed in support of the aforementioned results.

In 2012, California State University Chico, Chico, CA, started WellCat Fit, a free, peer mentor-led program geared toward helping students diagnosed with depression develop improvements in positive mood and self-esteem through exercise.  “A handful of my students would engage in longer bike rides around Bidwell Park and downtown,” stated Roxy Rarick, the WellCat Fit program coordinator from 2014-2016.  “One of my students loved to mountain bike in Upper Bidwell Park, until winter would come around.”

Rarick, an avid outdoors woman and fellow mountain biker, mentored more than 20 students diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety during her time at CSU Chico. “It was challenging to help keep the students engaged in outdoor physical activity during the winter. This could be attributed to their decreased motivation to be active outside in the cold (possibly due to SAD), a lack of resources to participate in outdoor activities, emotions they may be experiencing during the holidays, as well as an increase in stress from finals.”

If exercise can be as effective as low-dose antidepressants, and definitely worth more than doing nothing, why not treat your mental blues with a prescription of singletrack therapy? Sounds like a rad idea!

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Bikepacking the Arizona Trail, north of Tucson, AZ.  Photo © David Herbold.

How Mountain Biking Can Help Battle SAD

Mountain biking improves self-confidence, allows for goal setting, enhances social connectivity, and helps some individuals overcome fear.  It has also been shown to reduce boredom, a quality associated with SAD.  Spending year-round time on the bike also enhances physiological synergism and has many systemic rewards.  The production of dopamine and serotonin through physical activity and sun exposure provides positive increases to mood.  Burning calories helps control weight and appetite.  Exercise has also been shown to help control abnormal sleep patterns like insomnia or lethargy.

Spending time with others enhances relationships, a foundational part to a healthy outlook on life.  “Making plans to ride with other people really helps the motivation,” explained Sublett. “Once I was out there, and riding, it was always good.  If you have a commitment to be there, and people are counting on you to be there, it makes it a little easier to get out of the house.”  Check out local shops to find a group ride. Meet new people. Increase your bond with old friends. Who ever regrets that?

Rely on Mother Nature’s therapy.  Studies support the role of adventure sports in connecting to the natural environment, enhancing mood.  The rain can feel good.  The cold can be invigorating.  Mountain biking can create an “unselfconsciousness, pleasurable, kinesthetic bodily sensation,” often associated with activity maintenance and even self-identity revelation.

PMA.  Establishing a positive mental attitude (PMA) toward a negative stressor or depressive experience (here, the seasonal environment and weather), has been shown to alter mental perception.  Explore the positive aspects of the winter or rainy season–the lush green countryside created by nourishing precipitation; coats of crisp, white snow; campfires; flannel; and a unique bonding experience.

The sun: natural light therapy.  Albeit, a possibly unfavorable day (too cold, too hot), going outside to pedal if the sun is shining is synonymous to the aforementioned in-office treatment.  The irony of SAD lies in the fact that spending time outdoors has been shown to have potent anti-depressive effects.  Research supports low levels of vitamin D being associated with mood disorders, such as depression, SAD, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  Sun exposure promotes vitamin D production in the skin, and after its conversion to its active/usable form, helps regulate serotonin and dopamine production in the brain – neurotransmitters that help balance mood.

What if the weather is just absolutely terrible?  “One of my go-to activity suggestions was spinning,” stated Rarick.  “Most of our spinning classes lasted 30 minutes, included a knowledgeable instructor, upbeat music, and offered a variety of levels and tempos to create your own personal workout challenge.”  And, spin supplies a quality social component as well.

Your Turn: How do you deal with seasonal depression? Share your stories in the comments section below!

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Autumn in Oroville, northern California. Photo @ Jennifer Herbold.


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Greenblat, J.M. (2011, Nov 14).  Psychological consequences of vitamin D deficiency.  Psychology today.  Retrieved on November 22, 2016 from

Kerr, J. H., & Mackenzie, S. H. (2012). Multiple motives for participating in adventure sports. Psychology of sport and exercise13(5), 649-657.

Lawlor, D. A., & Hopker, S. W. (2001). The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials. Bmj322(7289), 763.

National institutes of mental health. (March 2016). Seasonal affective disorder. Retrieved on Nov 22, 2016 from

Traffanstedt, M. K., Mehta, S., & LoBello, S. G. (2016). Major depression with seasonal variation: Is it a valid construct? Clinical psychological science, 2167702615615867.

Turner, V. S. (2016, March 15).  Study finds “seasonal affective disorder” doesn’t exist.  Scientific american.  Retrieved on Nov 22, 2016 from