Partnering to treat mental illness: Nice Ride, HCMC join forces to offer free bike memberships to patients

Tina Cho, the access director of Nice Ride Minnesota, said Nice Ride’s goal is to improve the quality of life for all Minnesotans. (Erick Castellanos/ThreeSixty Journalism)

The Hennepin County Medical Center and Twin Cities ride-sharing program Nice Ride are partnering to offer patients with mental illness free use of bikes throughout the summer.

Launched in 2016, the program aims to help people with mental illness build trust, develop good habits and support a healthy lifestyle, program leaders say. The partnership comes as a growing body of research shows that physical fitness can help people with mental health issues.

“Our actual mission is to ensure that every person who lives in the state of Minnesota has a higher quality of life,” said Tina Cho, access director for Nice Ride Minnesota. “We believe that having access to bikes increases quality of life and increases the quality of the place that you live in.”

People affected by mental illness in the United States die 25 years younger than those without the conditions, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Increasingly, research shows that physical health is tied to mental health, and that people with mental health problems tend to have the same physical problems as the average population but are affected more severely.

Those with severe anxiety and depression, for instance, are more likely to suffer from physical health problems such as high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exercise is something that can be prescribed as a treatment for these conditions, according to Amber Courtney, an occupational therapist at HCMC who specializes in mental health and who helps lead the program.

“Medication alone often isn’t enough to change people’s circumstance or condition,” Courtney said. “It often takes some kind of physical activity to support their medication.”

The program allows participants to have the benefits of the bike, without worrying about the cost of buying or maintaining it, Cho said. In addition, riders are able to explore the numerous sights of the city alone or in group sessions.

During the first year, 26 people participated in the program and rode nearly 1,000 hours combined, said Courtney. So far this year, 25 HCMC patients are participating and 20 percent of last year’s participants decided to come back, with some leading the current group.

Participants in the program and program leaders pose for a photo near a Nice Ride station.
Participants in the program and program leaders pose for a photo near a Nice Ride station. (Erick Castellanos/ThreeSixty Journalism)

Some riders accumulated more than 500 bike rides by themselves and reported losing weight and even getting off some medications during the program, according to Cho.

But what happens when winter comes?

The program hopes to partner with organizations such as the YMCA, Planet Fitness and hospitals to provide more exercise options for its patients, according to Courtney.

If riders keep up participation for the next few years, the program is expected to expand, according to Courtney. The two partners also are looking to widen the program to include people with physical illnesses, such as high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

“This is really just the beginning for us,” Courtney said.