Throw Away Your Self-Help Books. Get a Bike.
Wellness means dealing with both psyche and physicality. The two are not different. After years of spiritual and therapeutic experiment, I can offer one simple life change that can prove that to you — and dramatically improve all facets of your life.
Get a bike. Nothing fancy, it can be any old clunker (and is probably better that way). And bike everywhere possible: to work, home, shopping (you’ve heard of a backpack right?). And do so wherever you live and in every kind of season and weather.*
Wear a helmet. Use lights (a must at night). And look sharp. It will change your life.
Part of what makes us weak, conventional, slovenly, boring, and typical is that we persuade ourselves that we must use certain mechanisms to get through life, generally those that everybody else uses and that we are conditioned to use by convention. In matters of transit that often means a car. Hence, we grow accustomed to ready warmth, dryness, door-to-door convenience, and digital music or radio noise. (Have you noticed how many people leave on their radio permanently, even making guest passengers speak over it?)
In winters, many people warm their cars before entering them as though even a few minutes of less- than-optimal comfort is intolerable. We grow stiff and inflexible behind the wheel. We gain weight, get easily winded, and lose muscle. We also force ourselves into company that we may not want, such as on commutes or in carpools. None of it is strictly necessary (at least most of the time, depending on your commute and living situation), and little of it is healthy.
If you bike everywhere — and in nearly every kind of weather — you will not only become more physically resilient but, I believe, also more compelling as a person. Watch and see. You will stand out because you carry your own weight, literally and figuratively. You eschew convenience in favor of health, experience (you see and learn more about your surroundings by cycling), and greater personal freedom, coming and going at will. You will be physically tougher. You will sometimes get caught in rain and snow. Well, wet clothes and shoes dry. Cold limbs and extremities warm. Aches and pains are signs of burgeoning strength. This is not some bubblegum, uber-menschen ideal. It is the truth.
As I am writing these words I am drying out after biking in a thunderous and massive downpour over the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I walked into my destination soaked through as though I had jumped in a lake fully clothed. Literally. I thought: good. I did the very thing that I am asking you to do. If I didn’t, what would that make me? I felt alive, fully enjoying the warmth of recovering, and feeling like I earned my glass of whiskey. I also earned the writing of this counsel.
If you haven’t biked in a while, begin incrementally and easily. The point is not to blow your joints or take a spill but to gradually accustom yourself to a new way of life.
I recommend using a fixed or single-gear bike. Unless you are cycling in mountainous areas you can do nearly everything on a single-gear bike that you can on a multiple-gear bike. It will be more difficult at first, but you will get used to it — and you will also get stronger faster. A fixed-gear bike is generally cheaper and easier to maintain and repair than a multiple-gear bike. Also unless you opt for an expensive bike, gears can be wonky.
I bought the fixed-gear bike I currently use in 2016 for $256.16. Not a bad price. Since then I’ve probably spent at least the same amount on repairs and the replacement of a stolen front wheel (also get a good lock, which can run $50). I spent $42.99 on a helmet (there are cheaper models), which is absolutely vital. I recently sunk $119 into an additional lightweight, fold- able helmet because it’s an excellent model that I want available to my kids and that I can carry with me when traveling. I have flipped backwards on my bike and felt the rear of my head go clunk on the pavement. I walked away shaken but completely unharmed. Without a helmet I would have suffered a concussion, fracture, or worse. I never ride, even for a block, without a helmet. I will not permit anyone I love to do so.
This brings me to another point: motorized bikes. I oppose them. Not only do they abrogate the healthfully and environmentally sound purpose of biking but they are dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists, and their own riders, especially in urban environments. In the story I just told, I flipped over because I swerved to avoid a motorized bike. I was nearing a large puddle on a New York City bike path while a motorized bike was coming straight toward me at a faster speed than is allowable on city bike paths; I misjudged how quickly the driver would be upon me, crunched my brakes, and flipped over in an effort to avoid impact. As I write these words in July 2020, two New Yorkers just died following accidents on mopeds that belong to a rideshare service. Biking means biking. It doesn’t require “improving.” However careful you are, of course, biking carries risks, as do most means of transportation. Be mindful, be careful, use aggressive good sense.
I want to close this article on a more personal note. I realize how arbitrary it can seem to tell someone to go ride a bike. But I want to share one further observation. When I bought my bike, as mentioned, it was in September of 2016. I was facing a difficult stage in life. I was transitioning out of a longtime publishing job and, not long after, out of my former marriage.
It was a harrowing but also meaningful time. I felt nervousness but also a sense of portent and possibility. Some of the blossoming I experienced coincided with — and in certain ways was abetted by — my decision to ride. Riding gave me a feeling of liberation and selfhood; it reconnected me with street culture in New York City, where biking forms a kind of anyone-can-join fraternity. (This is true in many towns and cities.) It may sound like a stretch, but I felt a return to my punk roots. It was like I was fully breathing again. The feeling proved enduring.
I am not saying that the psychological dimensions of what I described are universal — but nor do I consider my life exceptional. We are all connected in experience, as are the constituent parts of our lives. At the start of this section I wrote that biking would “change your life.” I would never make such a statement in a trifling way. You will find something more than you expect.
* If you have a physical challenge that makes biking untenable or impossible I ask that you substitute, to the greatest degree possible, other forms of self-propelled transportation, including a hand-cranked bike or wheelchair. In such cases, adjust the physical requirements in this article to fit your needs.
The essay is adapted from the author’s book The Miracle Month, which he also advises you to throw away.