How bikes can change lives forever by activating kids instead of medicating them

 A group of kids on mountain bikes.
Credit: Eric Arce / Outride

This wasn’t actually what I was going to write about this week, but it’s a topic that’s way more important than what I had in mind. Especially it turns out the next week is the best chance to see a new film on a really rare and empowering subject. That news dropping into my inbox also lined up with an inspiring presentation on a program that’s having a huge benefit to kids across the US and Canada. Not just anecdotally but with deep dive science from Harvard and Stamford proving that getting kids – especially ones who might struggle in a conventional learning situation – onto bikes is an incredibly beneficial move.

Hard Miles is a proper Hollywood film starring Mathew Modine (Oppenheimer, Stranger Things, Full Metal Jacket and many others) as a teacher who takes a group of correctional school kids on an 11-day ride from Colorado to the Grand Canyon. And before you think this is just feel-good BS, the story is true. Including the bits about the kids welding up their own bikes and going from wobbling around the parking lot to working together to overcome mountains, deserts and serious chafing issues. I don’t think anyone is expecting it to make a similar explosion in terms of viewing numbers as Oppenheimer, but it’s great that big names and big budgets are being involved in a cycling version of Dangerous Minds. And the good news is if you enjoy the trailer then there’s a full list of UK screenings – mostly over the next week 31 May to 6 June. Sorry, readers elsewhere in the world, you'll have to look up your own showtimes.

Rider on road bikes in the Hard Miles movie
Rider on road bikes in the Hard Miles movie

Trash Mob rules

The film also mirrors the excellent work being done in the UK by the TrashMob Academy program run by Trash Free Trails. This is a structured set of six lessons designed to get kids out into the outdoors on bikes to teach them about looking after their local area and their own health. The results have been amazing where it’s been implemented too, particularly when kids who feel like society has already given up on them have been involved. It’s supported by some great brands and anyone from schools, youth programs to outdoor providers (Go Ape and Bike Park Wales have been running schemes) can access the free packs.

Riding is my Ritalin

The news about Hard Miles coincided with a press camp presentation on the Outride program that’s already been rolled out across 350 schools involving fifty thousand kids in the US and Canada. It was started by Specialized founder, Mike Sinyard, over a decade ago following his own experiences with his children and his firm belief in ‘pedals not pills’ as a way to feel better about the world. It’s now a completely open source, non-brand-aligned initiative also supported by Mongoose, Trek and others. The idea behind Outride is simple – it gives kids who don’t have the chance to ride the opportunity to get on bikes and head out on the trails with their friends and experience nature and the freedom a bike can bring.

While we all know about the feelings of well-being, satisfaction and calmness that can come after a good ride out in the wild, the positives aren’t just anecdotal. Outride is backed up by studies done with Harvard Medical School and Stamford University involving brain-mapping helmets and other sensory trackers. This proves that not only is post-ride happiness a genuine thing in terms of brain stimulation and massively increasing blood flow to the brain, but riding can also even out brain activity in neurodivergent people. Reducing hyperactivity and low activity in different cerebral zones to create a more balanced mood state. Or as one ADHD child on the program put it “riding is my Ritalin”.

Again, the work being done by Outreach is paralleled by the studies and initiatives of DMBINS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) and Napier University using mountain biking as therapy for people who might be struggling with normal life – whether that’s socially or in managing drug addiction. There’s also a US program called Project New Day that uses bikes as part of a rehabilitation program for drug addicts.

Outride brain map graphic
Outride brain map graphic

Pedals not pills

These mental health initiatives obviously go hand in hand with the massive amounts of evidence for the importance of physical activity and cycling in terms of combating obesity, aging, cancer and even issues like Alzheimer's and dementia. So while I’m probably preaching to the converted here, if you know someone in your life who could maybe benefit from getting on a bike to lift their mood, lighten their mass or fitness-proof their future, then the science says it’s well worth doing.