Biking behaviour: How one nonprofit is aiming to improve attention in the classroom with cycling

Catharine Pendrel leads a pack of elementary school kids on a morning Kamloops ride during PE. Photo provided by Outride.

Mike Sinyard, a biker with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), noticed something wonderful when he cycled; his symptoms always seemed to improve. 

“He found that his ADHD was much better after a bike ride,” said Skye DeLano, executive director of Outride.

The behavioural pattern prompted Singer, chief executive officer of Specialized Bike Company, to found the nonprofit organization Outride in 2012 (originally named The Specialized Foundation) and commission a study to see if neuroscientists could find out what was happening in the brain during cycling.

“What they found was yes, there is something special about cycling that benefits the brain, even after a single ride,” Delano said. “The combination of balance with blood flow, the way you breathe while cycling; it benefits your brain.”

Since the initial study, Outride has worked with researchers from different American universities including Stanford, the University of Georgia and the University of Wyoming to look specifically at the benefits of cycling on the brain for kids with ADHD.

The research resulted in a program called Riding for Focus where Outride provides bikes and a curriculum for teachers who want to add cycling into their scheduled physical education (PE) classes.

Riding for Focus is now implemented at over 200 schools in North America, including one in Clearwater, B.C. and one at R.L. Clemitson Elementary in Kamloops.

“What has been found in the research is that bicycling can improve mood and their ability to understand their feelings,” DeLano explained. “Participants demonstrated improved attention and longer response times after exercise, indicating less impulsivity, and altered brain activity; tests demonstrated a trend towards ‘normal’ patterns of brain activity after cycling compared to before [the program] for students with attention issues.”

However, the research regarding the impact of the program is not peer-reviewed and thus has not yet been found to be fact.

“We also saw improvements in Math and English scores for kids who did the Riding for Focus [but] even though we have all that evidence, it’s not causal,” said Delano.

Riding into Kamloops  

Elementary school teacher Lacey Munden applied to Outride in 2019 to bring the program to her school. Munden was successful and received the curriculum along with 28 bikes in September of 2020.

“We’ve got 125 kids on bikes every week,” said Munden.

Munden rallied other teachers from her cohort to partake in the program with students ranging from grades five to seven.

Munden, along with other teachers, parent volunteers and Outride ambassadors, including local residents Canadian Olympian Catharine Pendrel and professional mountain biker Dylan Sherrard, have been instructing kids two or three days a week in lieu of traditional PE classes.

“There were kids who’ve never ridden a bike,” Munden said. “We worked with them after school to make sure they could pedal and we started with work on the school field.”

“Since then, it’s been amazing to see the confidence,” she said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the girls who tend to be quiet in PE classes often realize they can ride up hills quicker than some of the boys, or some of the boys who may not have been good in other kinds of PE are all of a sudden progressing quickly. They kind of blew my expectations out of the water.”

Anecdotally, Munden has noticed relief of behavioural issues after a ride.

Catharine Pendrel speaks with an R.L. Clemitson Elementary school class. Photo provided by Outride.

“I would say that those kids that struggle behaviorally do much better [after] a ride. Their teachers come in and it’s like ‘Holy moly [the kids] are quiet,’” Munden explained. 

“I think getting out first thing in the morning has been great for them. It takes a little bit of their energy and they come back to school relaxed and focused.”

Her Riding for Focus program will wrap up its first year this spring and Munden is excited to see the results on report cards as well as the post-program quiz where students are asked how much they like school and how focused they were. Those answers are then compared to the pre-program quiz.

Riding Forward

While alleviating ADHD symptoms is a feat in and of itself, Outride isn’t stopping there.

With record levels of inactivity and mental health challenges recently reported due to the pandemic, as well as rising reports of hate crimes and racism, Outride has expanded its aims to diversify the next generation of cyclists and build community through biking.

“Part of our goal through these programs, including the engagement of ambassadors, is to encourage applicants who have a whole range of backgrounds,” DeLano said.

DeLano explained Outride uses the bike as a tool to play a significant role in helping build community through the connections that are forged during long bike rides and events.

“Part of that is our commitment to increasing the number of people who know how to ride bikes, but the other part is how we’re doing our work. We recognize in the U.S. the systems and legacy of racism have continued to impact our BIPOC, marginalized, vulnerable rural communities disproportionately, [and] as a result we’re prioritizing our grants to the communities who need it most.” 

For the next round of applications, potential participants will be asked what their socio-economic status is and the demographic of the schools in an aim to diversify gender, ethnicity and ability in Outride programming. 

As well, the next Outride research summit (free for all by registration) titled Advancing Youth and Community Well-Being through Cycling, will highlight recent research and information on the impacts of riding when it comes to health and well being, but will also engage communities in discussions around equity and access.

Munden added the program really is for everyone, as she has a student who is visually impared.

“Blake [a blind Outride ambassador] visited the R.L Clemitson Elementary School kids via Zoom and Kyra, our visually impared child, is on cloud nine and cannot wait to connect with Blake again. This experience has been such an asset to our school and we are so thankful!”

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