Shannon Brescher Shea’s nine-year-old son had trouble concentrating and following directions at home and school. But after riding his bike (be it at the park or school), he felt calmer.
Shea’s experience is not unique. Science has repeatedly shown that physical activity helps improve mental health. “Exercise is best for every organ in the body, regardless of age, including the brain,” says Allan Reiss, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and director of the Department of Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences at the College of Medicine at Stanford University (US).
And while any exercise helps, there’s a growing body of research showing that cycling is among the activities that can do the most to improve mental health. “Our research shows that children who ride bikes at least once a week report greater psychological well-being,” says cognitive scientist Esther Walker, director of research programs at Outride, a nonprofit organization that researches cycling and supports youth programs.
At a time when young people’s mental health is in crisis, cycling is an opportunity that families may not have taken full advantage of. If you own a bike or have access to one, here’s what you need to know to start reaping the benefits of cycling.
Recent research has shown that aerobic exercise is associated with improved cognitive functioning, such as attention and academic performance. However, some experts believe that the improvements can be even more noticeable when we get on a bike.
Scientists aren’t sure why that is, but it could have something to do with all the execution skills cyclists use. “You have to balance and process a lot of information from the environment, like knowing if you’re going to pass a tree or how hard to brake,” says Reiss, one of the researchers who focused on a subset of older cyclists. “You have to constantly coordinate, feel, process, integrate, inhibit, and make decisions.”
For everyone, but especially children, improving their parallel processing skills is crucial. Outside, through primary research and research with university colleagues, begins investigating how cycling can provide this brain boost. According to Walker, “Research suggests that physical activity, such as bicycling, likely promotes the growth of new cells in areas of the brain associated with memory and problem-solving and may promote stronger connections between neurons, ultimately in memory and learning.”
Meanwhile, at Stanford, Reiss and his team are working on a new study to measure the changes that occur in the brain while someone is exercising (the majority of existing research looks at brain activity before and after).
Among other things, this will allow the team to understand how cycling changes attention and whether or not someone has a known attention problem such as ADHD. This is important, he says, because improving awareness through something as simple as a bike ride can be helpful at home, with friends, at school for kids, and at work for adults.
Thankfully, getting on a bike isn’t that hard. And kids in particular “don’t think of it as work,” says Walker. “They see it as fun and freedom.” Here are some ideas for your family to take advantage of this severe psychological overload:
Give the kids the reins. How exactly do you give children control over cycling? “We guide children, but we also empower them to make decisions,” says Thomas Clanton, assistant professor of physical education and recreation studies at Young Harris College in Georgia.
For example, parents can draw a city map, highlight 10 child-friendly destinations, and let the child decide where they want to go and how to get there by bike. And you? Opinion on safety and logistics, depending on the cyclist’s age and ability.
Offer them chores. The distribution of roles on the bike tour can also convey a feeling of control. For example, whoever is leading the march will do the pre-check: is everyone wearing a helmet, lights on, and a full water bottle? During the class, the leader may point out things to look out for, such as large puddles or a stop sign. If someone is too tired, the leader decides whether to take a break or turn around.
“Having young people lead the action gives them a sense of ownership,” says Ajoa Abrokwa, founder of She Is Focused, a cycling-focused fitness and community engagement program for women and girls in Philadelphia, USA Skills.”To plan, execute, lead, and support on the bike.”
Focus on having fun. To ensure drivers don’t tire (or get bored) too quickly, plan a fun stop instead of just focusing on the ride. “Self-paced exploration and adventure are key when it comes to cycling,” says Charles Chancellor, associate professor in the School of Behavioral, Social, and Health Sciences at Clemson University in South Carolina, USA (he also leads the Bicycle Research Team that studies the use of bicycles).
The adventure can also take place in the city or the country. If you live in a city with access to bike parks or bike lanes, you can join in the fun. In rural areas or areas with access to cycle paths, be aware of local flora and fauna as you ride.
Start small. Some cyclists are naturally reluctant, especially when it comes to speeding down a hill or trying a rutted trail. Start with a “snail race”: Who can get from point A to point B the slowest without tipping over?
Includes environmental management. Whether your cyclist enjoys the slick city streets or trails covered in dirt and roots, the ride is an opportunity to talk about protecting the earth. City streets and dusty forest trails require care and attention to stay safe for cyclists. “While driving, we develop a greater awareness and consideration for the paths and roads,” says Abrokwa.
Bring friends. Reiss says the benefits of cycling can be multiplied when it becomes a social endeavor: “Our brains evolved to engage socially, and group exercise is often more motivating for people.”
In neighborhoods where there are bike lanes or other safe routes for cycling, organizing a group ride with friends can be a way to reduce stress and let people relax.