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by Iain Treloar
The morning light filters through the trees in Asheville, North Carolina, and Leif’s out for a ride.
He shreds around a corner, weight low over the bike and elbows wide, with his tyres kicking up the leaves off the dusty path weaving its way through the forest. Leif’s only in sixth grade but his riding is already textbook — feet at 9 and 3, his body a coiled spring propelling him along the trail. His focus is singular.
Like a lot of kids, Leif has energy to burn. But there’s a bit more going on here than youthful exuberance. Like millions of kids at school in the USA, he struggles with attention and staying engaged with schoolwork. The difference is that he’s found an outlet. In this scenario, his morning bike ride forms part of the school curriculum — a program woven into physical education electives with a goal of improving academic, health and social outcomes for kids like Leif.
The stats around Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are stark and a little confronting. There’s no definitive consensus on how many children have the condition, but most studies suggest that the figure is at least one in twenty, and potentially as high as one in nine.
What’s easier to quantify, though, is the increase in the number of prescriptions issued to treat ADHD – a 28% increase between 2007 and 2011 – or the 41% increase in ADHD diagnoses since 2003. Whether or not there’s a trend towards premature medication is, to a certain extent, irrelevant at this scale; however you slice it, there are millions of kids struggling with ADHD, suffering poorer academic outcomes and being prescribed controlled substances – stimulants like Ritalin or amphetamines like Adderall – in a bid to treat their symptoms. And the economic implications are staggering; child and adolescent ADHD is a $7.2 billion industry for pharmaceutical firms, and a $42.5 billion cost to society.
Against this background, meanwhile, schools across the USA and beyond are struggling to come to terms with parental and societal pressure to drive academic performance, whilst still providing an education that’s relevant and accessible to the full diversity of pupils in their care. It’s little wonder, perhaps, that resource-heavy classes like physical education are some of the first to be cut in favour of maths, science or English.
But an inactive childhood and adolescence sows the seeds of an inactive adulthood, and less than 9% of US high schoolers are presently getting 60 minutes of exercise a day. A significant proportion of US schools fail to meet minimum daily exercise requirements – and meanwhile, childhood obesity, depression and ADHD are on the march. The nostalgic ideal of kids riding bikes in the streets after school is, across most of the developed world, a thing of the past – and it’s not happening as part of the curriculum, either.
The nostalgic ideal of kids riding bikes in the streets after school is, across most of the developed world, a thing of the past – and it’s not happening as part of the curriculum, either.
If failing to hit exercise targets sounds counter-intuitive, it’s probably because it is, and researchers are finding themselves increasingly concerned at the decline in childhood physical activity. There’s a growing weight of research highlighting the academic benefits of exercise for children; research that raises questions like – what if students are better off spending more time in physical education class, rather than less? What if there’s something more complex going on there at a neurological level than simply blowing off steam? And the big one – what if physical activity could play a role in helping kids with ADHD thrive at school?
So when Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized Bicycle Components, happened across a magazine article titled ‘Riding is my Ritalin’, it was something of a light-bulb moment. He has ADHD himself, but found sufficient focus through cycling that he was able to go from high-school dropout to founder of one of the world’s most successful bike companies. And he’d seen his teenaged son, who also has ADHD, build a love of bike riding and transform his life for the better. Sinyard connected the dots, and realised that this was something worth looking into.
The Riding for Focus program was first piloted in 2012, with a goal of identifying the connection between riding and improved outcomes for children in the program — not just physically and emotionally, but academically. In partnership with a team of neuroscience consultants, the effects bike riding had on participants were tracked over a month-long, daily cycling regime. The results showed cycling improved subjects’ mood and attention, and clearly indicated that this deserved closer examination on a larger scale.
But where things got really interesting was when students with attention issues were examined: neuroelectric tests showed a trend towards ‘normal’ patterns of brain activity after cycling. For ADHD-affected kids, so accustomed to a relentless swirl of activity in their heads, the simple act of riding a bike had a profound effect far transcending a worthy dose of daily exercise – it slowed them down, and made them present.
A follow-up study in 2014 was trialled in five schools, comparing test results of students who rode before tests with those who did not – most significantly finding a strong connection between cycling and significantly higher standardised Maths test scores. The results confirmed what was already suspected, providing the impetus for the program’s expansion.
For ADHD-affected kids, so accustomed to a relentless swirl of activity in their heads, the simple act of riding a bike had a profound effect far transcending a worthy dose of daily exercise – it slowed them down, and made them present.
In 2015, the not-for-profit The Specialized Foundation was launched, with the aim of increasing the reach of the Riding for Focus program and, in partnership with researchers at Stanford Medical School, filling in the gaps in medical understanding of ADHD. Using neural-imaging techniques to track brain function, attention and cognition, the researchers look for an exercise-based complement to medication – which for some children, may even be able to replace pills entirely.
Outside of the lab, though, there’s nothing academic about it – the magic of the program is that it taps into the joy of riding.
Ted Theocheung, The Specialized Foundation CEO, explains the in-school experience:
“One common theme is that the kids find cycling fun! Fun that … extends to riding after school. It’s inclusive in that all kids can ride together. We see leaders hanging back and bringing up the slower kids, we see them collaboratively helping in a leadership function … It inspires teamwork that goes across demographics.”
The Specialized Foundation may have been born of a desire to combat ADHD, but its reach has been far greater, because it’s not just children with ADHD that benefit from riding a bike. It’s an accessible activity for all fitness levels, a physical outlet that gets kids off couches, and has far broader applications for transport, utility, exploration, and building a healthy life around than gym class staples like jumping jacks or sit-ups. While the benefits of cycling may vary from child to child, there are always benefits.
While the benefits of cycling may vary from child to child, there are always benefits.
The Riding for Focus program – which trains a school ‘champion’, includes a turnkey cycling curriculum and supplies a class set of bikes and helmets – is currently operating in 38 schools across the U.S. and being piloted in the UK. With such a diversity of school environments, student backgrounds and ability levels, it was essential to find an inclusive program format that would work across the board. Now, in partnership with experts at Central Michigan University, the curriculum has been honed and tested in everything from small special needs schools to lower-income inner city public schools. “We focus on diversity … [because] the program benefits all kids,” says Theocheung.
With a proven framework in place, The Specialized Foundation is ready to further broaden its reach. Buoyed by word of mouth between educators, the assistance of public donations, and the support of partner foundations – such as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation, who recently sponsored the program’s introduction into two local schools – there’s enormous scope for the accelerated growth of the Riding for Focus program.
For the vast number of kids who’d thrive with the academic, health and social success that access to cycling could provide, this is a potentially life-changing prospect.
As encouraging as the results of the program are from a big-picture perspective, it’s at the level of the school – and the student – that the transformative effect of The Specialized Foundation’s work is most apparent.
Evergreen Community Charter School, situated in the Appalachian Mountains, is one such good news story. Already an innovator in its approach to physical education, Evergreen’s focus on the outdoors is driven by a committed core of educators with an uncommon understanding of the benefits of exercise for students. “Kids aren’t supposed to sit all day,” explains Evergreen PE teacher Jo Giordano. “So if we can integrate these snippets of fun, vigorous exercise, we’ve got such a good handle on what education should be.”
“Kids aren’t supposed to sit all day.”
But whilst Evergreen had been able to introduce rock climbing, skiing, snowboarding and ropes courses into the PE curriculum, bike riding had proved a greater challenge to pull off. “[We’d] been brainstorming it for 10 years … how can we get kids on bikes?” Like all worthwhile things it took time to puzzle out, but when an email came through from The Specialized Foundation the pieces started to fall into place.
For Giordano, the greatest potential in the Riding for Focus program was to prime the students for the school day ahead. “Some of us are morning people and some of us are not. But we go right into academics for these students. And we need to give them a chance to wake up … for the holistic education we should give them”.
The program was a game-changer for participants, Giordano says. “The students are motivated. They’re here. They’re alive. They leave here and they’re like, ‘thanks! That was so amazing! I’m ready for the school day.’”
Recruitment for the morning ride program – Evergreen call it the ‘Dirt Squad’ – was self-selecting, Giordano explains. “It was … who tells us that they really need more exercise in a day, who tells us that they’re nervous when they walk into school or they have stomach aches when school is about to get in session.” In the end, the composition of the group turned out to be the students who needed it most.
The kids didn’t know the science behind the neurons firing in their brains and the endorphins rushing through their bodies, but they could feel the impact. “When they started to talk about exercise in the morning,” Giordano continues, “they were like, ‘I just feel better. I’m just a little bit more ready for school.’ It doesn’t take long before you start to want that opportunity for all kids.”
Despite a 7.30am start every day, the group has remained constant; kids new to bikes, and kids who’d been riding since they walk, and everything in between. “They’ve taught each other how this has changed their life,” Giordano says. “We cram so much into what education should be in our country and we forget that play has been maybe missing, and how it is integral. Our students are really the story.”
“We cram so much into what education should be, and we forget that play has been maybe missing.”
You don’t need to do a lot of digging to see the positive implications of bike-riding on the students in the program; they’ll tell you about it themselves. Devon, an articulate 12-year-old with a congenital condition affecting his right leg to the point that he only has use of his left, rolls up to Dirt Squad with a modified bike and a smile.
For Devon, cycling is a powerful avenue of physical self-empowerment, providing an opportunity to push himself and excel. “Instead of saying, no, that’s too dangerous, I go ahead. I build up to it. I go for it. I persevere. I will do what it takes to actually be able to have fun and live my life to the fullest because I can’t bend this leg,” he explains. But there’s also the calming effect of the pre-school bike ride, helping improve focus and engagement at school. “I feel it helps me a lot,” Devon says. “It just gets some of the energy that you don’t need out, and makes you more aware … a lot of people should do it – even adults!”
For students like Leif, at risk of slipping through the gaps, the Riding for Focus program has had a transformative effect. “He arrives and rides hard,” Giordano says, “And then he says ‘OK, I just feel different now. I don’t know what it is, but I’m just ready now.’” In that hazy morning light on the trails of Asheville, from the seat of a basic blue Specialized mountain bike, Leif works off the excess energy that he needs to. “He’s been focused, his grades have gone up this year,” explains his mother Marin. “He’s been able to connect the dots between it feels good to exercise in the morning, I feel better during the day.”
With the help of donors and the support of local bike shops and school advocates, The Specialized Foundation intends for Riding for Focus to be a PE curricula staple nationwide within the next three years. But that’s just one standard by which its success can be measured. For kids already involved in the program – kids like Leif, or Devon, or dozens of other middle-schoolers from Asheville to LA, Bellingham to the Bronx – it’s introducing them to that transcendental love of bike riding.
Leif’s mother relates a conversation she had with her son, who told her “When I’m riding a bike, I feel like I’m flying”. As Riding for Focus touches more young lives, perhaps its biggest legacy is giving wings to more kids with ADHD.