A New Study Shows When Kids Ride Bikes Together, Something Incredible Happens

a group of people riding bikes
Cycling Helps Middle Schoolers’ Mental HealthOutride

If you grew up in the traditional American school system, chances are you have at least one traumatic memory from gym or PE class. The locker room alone was a place of nightmares for most, not to mention being picked last, or simply having to do something you didn’t like. But the opposite is true for kids in Outride’s Riding for Focus (R4F) program.

Outride is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering communities’ cognitive, socio-emotional, and mental well-being through research, school-based cycling programs, and community grants. And their R4F program is a middle school-based PE curriculum that teaches 6th-8th grade students all aspects of riding.

Schools can acquire R4F by purchasing the program, or for schools serving under-resourced communities, they can apply for a program grant. Schools are then provided with everything they need, including bikes, helmets, curriculum, and all-day teacher training.

And recently, a study carried out in collaboration with researchers at Loma Linda University (LLU) and published this month in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living examined the effects of in-school cycling programs, such as R4F, on the mental health of middle schoolers. The study revealed the positive impact of cycling education on psychosocial well-being, and highlighted the role other factors play in shaping students’ mental health outcomes.

The research was carried out in 2021, and involved a sample of over 1,200 middle schoolers aged 11 to 14. Primarily, it assessed changes in mental well-being before and after participating in R4F. According to the study, participation in the program was associated with improved psychosocial well-being amongst middle schoolers in the U.S. In a press release, Dr. Sean Wilson, a professor at Loma Linda University and the senior author on the study, said that the results demonstrate that “short term physical activity programs [like R4F] hold promise of having a positive influence on mental health and wellbeing in adolescents.”

It’s one thing to have research that shows something is good for people, it’s another to figure out a way that they actually do the thing that’s good for them. “There’s plenty of research showing the benefits of physical activity for mental and physical health. So that side isn’t necessarily surprising,” Esther Walker, Research Director for Outride, told Bicycling. “But I think the key part is how we get people excited about engaging in that activity. What I’ve seen from the data is that these programs tend to have really high student engagement rates. Students report having a lot of fun in the program, and wanting to do more.

“And then I would add on top of that, because we’re working in a school setting, we are working with the school population, so the gender balance may be a lot more equal than just trying to start a program outside of school, where by default you get a lot more interest in mountain biking from boys.”

Another thing that evens the playing field is the equipment. Everyone is on the same bike, essentially. Different colors for different sizes. But no one has a “cooler” or “better” bike or helmet.

Granted and purchased programs receive a fleet of Specialized Rockhopper bikes in an array of sizes (XXS, XS, S, M, and L), and one-size fits most Specialized LED Centro Helmets that are high-visibility green and say “Riding for Focus” on the side.

John Glodek is the Physical/Health teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School outside of Washington D.C. He started R4F at his school in 2018 and says it has totally changed his life. Not only is he a cyclist himself, and excited about teaching anyone about bikes, he’s also seen a complete change in his students and the entire community because of the program.

a group of people on bicycles

“I’ve been doing five periods a day of Ride For Focus; 150 kids per day, on bikes for 47 minute class periods. It’s so amazing.” Glodek says he’s seen kids totally transform. Rather than being competitive, the program is all about building community. Kids have to communicate with each other about the equipment, or obstacles in the road. They also work together to get everyone to the same skill level, so all of the kids are rooting for each other.

“My max class size is 32 students,” Glodek told Bicycling. “And of those 32 kids you’ll have the full spectrum of experience with bikes. Kids who haven’t touched a bike since they were six, and kids who ride every day. The beauty of the program is that it’s very progressive. We start with basic skills to see where everyone is at, and then build up to longer rides.”

The program works a little differently for each school, depending on what space is available. Glodek starts the basic classes on school grounds, and then builds up to their longest ride — 3.5 miles — on state park trails off of school property.

“We’re building a community, and the students all know that the goal is to ride off school property. But we can’t do that until everyone has the skills. They know early on, some of us need help and support and our job is to help and support each other, not laugh and point when someone falls or they’re having trouble balancing.”

Glodek has also found that for kids who are more experienced, they’re empowered by being helpers. “Those kids who are a little more experienced get to become ride leaders. They know that I trust them to be in front, stopping at our checkpoints, making sure people are crossing streets correctly, making sure people are yielding.”

a group of people wearing helmets

Walker says that the program is focused on social, emotional, and cognitive health. So while it seems like the biggest benefits are physical health, it’s actually about a lot more. Students learn communication skills, social skills, and are able to have fun in a safe setting. And it doesn’t end with R4F. “We also have our Outride Fund Program, which is our community grant program where we support efforts for anything from helping to build a local bike park, to after school programming, to earn a bike program, all aimed at helping to sustain that interest.”

Getting in good physical shape is almost a byproduct. The more important thing—something the students themselves come to know and appreciate more and more—is that they’re not in front of a screen, they’re outside, enjoying their neighborhood, and enjoying their lives.

It’s good for the community, too. Glodek says that when he’s out with a class of kids, people take notice. “Our community knows who we are. We have 32 hi-vis helmets, so yeah, people notice. And they love it. People are like, ‘this is the most amazing thing ever.’ People ask, ‘is this a bike school?’ And I’m just like, ‘no, this is just the middle school right up the road.’” Glodek says police officers stop and hold traffic for them, and sanitation workers block traffic with their trucks. “It’s pretty neat to see how everyone responds to us.”

Riding for Focus has been implemented in over 225 schools — providing cycling education and access to 50,000 students annually. Nearly 60 percent of the schools using R4F serve communities where the majority of the students qualify for free/reduced lunches. If you want to find out more about the R4F program, or support Outride in any way, there’s all kinds of information on their website, including how to get R4F in your school.

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