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Bicycling Towards Better Mental Health Outcomes

It goes without saying that riding a bicycle is good exercise, and research today suggests it’s also beneficial for a person’s mental health. Now, two researchers from the Therapeutic Recreation program in the College of Public Health are taking that idea for a ride, and opening a new path for people who don't often get to travel on two wheels.

Gretchen Snethen, an associate professor of Rehabilitation Sciences, and Brandon Snead, a recreational therapist and alumnus of the college’s Therapeutic Recreation program, are members of the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion, a rehabilitation and training research center. They’ve created a program for people in Philadelphia with serious mental illnesses who want to ride bicycles. Through previous surveys and intervention research, they found biking was an unmet need for people with mental illnesses.

Over the past year, Snethen and Snead worked with handfuls of people with schizophrenia, severe depression, and bipolar disorder to help them ride comfortably and confidently in the city. Initially, the duo facilitated an earn-a-bike course, where they taught bike safety and maintenance and led group rides. Community members earned a new bike, helmet and bike lock upon completion.

Their current program, ICAN:BIKE, is a collaboration with Indego, Philadelphia’s bike-sharing initiative that lets anyone rent a bike from kiosks around the city. ICAN:BIKE is a three-week program that includes six sessions. Each class hosts between six to ten community members with mental illness.

Those individuals learn bike safety and maintenance, as well as how to use the Indego bikeshare stations. Then, they practice in parking lots before hitting the open road. Each person receives a three-month bike share membership and helmet when they complete the program. After receiving positive feedback from those first participants, Snethen and Snead are now putting together two more ICAN:BIKE cohorts.

Biking addresses a number of challenges people with serious mental illnesses face every day. For instance, transportation costs often limit where people travel, and how often they go. Due to this and other reasons, this population often becomes sedentary, contributing to isolation, loneliness, and poorer mental health outcomes.

Bike riding, however, is an almost-free form of transportation. With Indego Bikes, people on public assistance can sign up for $5 a month membership that includes unlimited hour-long rides. This reduces transportation costs significantly.

Meanwhile, travelling by bicycle to stores, the gym or mental health centers gets people exercising. Bikes can be used to visit friends and even serve as a fun activity to do with others. In these ways, biking can help to increase physical and social wellness. Biking may even challenge people’s perceptions about mental illness.

“Taking on the identity of a biker is just a cool identity to have among your family or community, or among your peers, who now see you as a biker instead of only a person with mental illness,” said Snead. “It opens up more doors for social connectivity.”

Mental health agencies often empower their consumers to take ownership of their mental illness, Snethen points out. However, that still centers the person’s identity around their mental illness.

Biking, she said, takes it one step further: “If a person says, ‘I bike,’ or ‘I use Indego,’ people think of him or her as a biker, and might not even know they have a mental illness. They get to be in control of their identity.”

For more information, visit ideindego.com/blog/mental-health-in-philadelphia/

Posted:  September 8, 2017