Cycling’s Physical and Mental Health Benefits for Survivors of Modern Slavery

modern slavery cycling

“The more I cycle, the happier I am. It gives me freedom”. These words reflect the experience of a victim of modern slavery who took part in the groundbreaking research project Freewheel by Ride for Freedom, conducted by Ride For Freedom, a social enterprise, supported by our work at SOAS. The project has conducted research Freewheel by Ride For Freedom into the physical and mental health benefits of providing survivors of modern slavery with bicycles, accessories and cycling proficiency training. 

The UK government’s own report, published in 2021, states there may be as many as 10,000 potential victims of Modern Slavery in the United Kingdom, up from just over 2000 in 2014. This number impacts lives in every dimension; escaping from servitude is the first priority, but rehabilitation into society is a huge challenge also. This is where the ‘Freewheel’ project rolls in. The impact study of a pilot programme, undertaken in the South West of England in 2021, found that the survivors of modern slavery showed improvements in their mental health and sense of “transport independence”, as well as having an improvement on their physical health. 

Across the participants, mental health was the category that saw the most positive improvement with access to bicycles enhancing the participants’ sense of mobility and ability to travel without dependence on others. 

What we did

The benefits of cycling amongst adults are well documented, in terms of physical fitness as well as mental health. Oja et al. describe the health benefits of cycling in adults, especially in terms of cardiovascular health and cognitive function (Oja et al., 2011:1). This study provided the first study of cycling’s benefits to those suffering from trauma, such as victims of modern slavery.

So, working in partnership with Unseen, a national anti-slavery charity, residents living in Unseen safe houses and community housing were invited to attend a cycling training session where they would be donated a bicycle and accessories – helmets, lights and locks. The invitations were made on a one-to-one basis by caseworkers and posters were placed in the communal areas of the safe houses. 

Prior to attending the training session, run by Life Cycle UK, a cycling charity, the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that posed questions across three primary assessment criteria: cycling ability, physical health, and mental health. The participants were then asked again to complete the same questionnaire following their training. 

What we found

The report concluded that the pilot successfully improved the mental health of the survivors of modern slavery that participated in the programme. On average, among the participants, mental health was the category that was improved the most, in particular, a sense of independence surrounding the participants’ transport. Access to bikes improved the participants’ sense of mobility and ability to travel without dependence on others. 

The case studies showed that for two participants IKM and VCL, who had ridden bikes before the pilot, the programme still had a positive impact on their mental health, and left them feeling as though they have more independence in terms of their transport and ability to get around. Participants also felt an increase in their sense of general fitness and an overwhelming improvement in terms of their mental health and how they feel about their ability to be ‘transport independent’.

What it means

In evidencing the opportunity that cycling provides to bring mental and physical health benefits to survivors of modern slavery, there is a proven basis to scale up this pilot programme – Freewheel by Ride For Freedom – and create a series of ‘hubs’ nationally in cities and regions where the need and ongoing demand for the provision are sadly evident. Gordon Miller, Founder & Team Leader at Ride for Freedom CIC, said: “Instinctively, we all know cycling gives enormous physical and mental health benefits. So, to be able to evidence this and to learn how much it has empowered the survivors who joined the pilot is hugely gratifying.”

This blog was co-authored with Gordon Miller, Founder & Team Leader at Ride For Freedom.

Dr J. Simon Rofe is Reader in Diplomatic and International Studies in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, at SOAS University of London. Alongside his research and practice in diplomacy and global history, with a particular focus on the diplomacy of international sport, he has a strong interest in digital education related to online learning and the professional development of those working with online students.

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