• Exercise is more than just good for our bodies – it's good for our mental health too

  • Jess Henley shares the more unexpected benefits of taking on a new fitness challenge

How many times have we heard that doing exercise is good for us? But easier said than done, right? I currently work full-time as a beauty editor and am also in my fifth year of training as a psychotherapist so it can be hard enough to factor in time to see my friends and boyfriend, let alone some me-time. As for exercise – are you kidding?

Then last November, over a glass of wine, a friend suggested this hare-brained idea of cycling the length of the country - from Lands End to John O’Groats - to raise money for a small school for underprivileged kids in Peru where I volunteered last September (www.aldeayanapay.org). Now, I can be quite impulsive when it comes to decision making, and before I knew it I signed up to do the Deloitte Ride Across Britain (www.rideacrossbritain.com) and committed to writing a blog about it (www.girlbeahvingbradley.com).  My challenge?  Cycling 969 miles in just nine days, this coming September.  Have I mentioned that I am a total novice and I haven’t been on a bike since I was about 18? I am now 33.

Knowing I only had 10 months till The Big Ride, I joined the Cycle Scheme through work, whereby your company buys your bike tax-free, then deducts monthly instalments from your salary (it works out significantly cheaper than my monthly travel card, by the way).  The first hurdle I had to overcome was my fear of cycling in London.  You can’t ignore all the tragic accidents that have happened and being on a thin road bike made me feel very vulnerable.  I went to a couple of free two-hour one-to-one cycle training sessions through Cycle Confident (www.cycleconfident.com) and after that I felt a lot more comfortable on the roads, so ready to start my new way of commuting.

A couple of months in, not only am I getting fitter, I’ve also noticed other  benefits. The first is my increased energy levels. I feel so much more motivated and have been experiencing the ‘cyclist’s high’ on my way to work.  Exercise releases endorphins which make you feel upbeat and energised.  Plus, I feel it ‘bulks’ up your brain, as well as your muscles, so helps your brain grow new cells which give greater mental flexibility. Combine that with the fact that I have been out in the fresh air, I haven’t been squashed on the tube next to sweaty people with loud music, and I have got to work 15 minutes quicker than if I’d gone on public transport – what’s not to love?  And, I’m not trying to fit exercise into my day on top of everything else, I’ve just substituted it for my commuting time. Genius!

The other surprising benefit is that because cycling warrants a certain type of concentration it brings you right into the here and now. You are truly living in the moment, not thinking about what you have to do tomorrow or what to cook for dinner, something which I know through my therapy training is very important for our general wellbeing. As for the physical benefits, aside from increased fitness, cycling uses a lot of lung power that helps strengthen your heart, lungs and your whole cardiovascular system. It’s win win all round don’t you think?

Further reading

But what if I can't exercise?

How to change the way you think about exercise

The unexpected beauty of Tough Mudder