Outride research shows that cycling has more than physical benefits
A version of this article appeared in the February issue of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. Retailers can get the printed or digital version of the magazine for free – subscribe at this link.
PALO ALTO, Calif. – In addition to giving more children access to bikes and places to ride, the nonprofit Outride is researching the cognitive and physical benefits of cycling.
“At the end of the day, it would be a dream come true for us to release information and evidence so people and parents can say, ‘This is very real,'” said Mike Sinyard, Founder and Co. of Specialized Bicycles -founder of Outride.
A decade after Sinyard helped launch the program exploring how cycling could benefit children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, that day may be here and lead to more kids pedaling instead of just taking pills.
At the Outride Summit in October, research conducted with Stanford University showed that cycling activates the brain “to activate hunting, foraging, and foraging,” said Dr. Allan L. Reiss at the summit. “These are the most effective for improving and maintaining brain health. What are these systems? They use a combination of spatial orientation and navigation, body awareness, memory, motor control, balance and coordination, and executive functions – planning, sequence, flexibility, inhibition, etc. What type of exercise does that sound like to you? Sounds like cycling right? That is exactly what cycling does.”
At the summit, Reiss, who works at Stanford School of Medicine and whose lab specializes in exercise neuroscience, noted evidence-based insights into why exercise matters, including improving cardiovascular health, bone and muscle health, the metabolic health and reducing the risk of most types of cancer.
Last but not least, Reiss said exercise — especially cycling — improves brain health.
“The great thing about cycling is that you can do it in groups,” Reiss said during his presentation, also noting that the benefits of cycling can help older adults with dementia prevention. “Doing it in groups in the natural environment. Being in the natural environment further enhances this positive effect on these brain systems. We do the study outside and inside just so we can compare the two and understand how the natural environment affects the brain.”
The study moves outside
During the summit, video was shown of a study participant riding her bike in front of the Stanford testing lab. She wore a brain imaging machine – similar to an MRI – under her helmet, hooked up to a transmitter stowed in a backpack.
The girl took a 20-minute drive outside of the Stanford testing lab, and brain activity was measured and graphed in real time on a laptop by a nearby researcher. The device indicates when certain areas of the brain are active.
“We hear a lot about the fact that cycling is good for the body and the heart, and that the idea that it’s also good for the brain is less well known,” said Esther Walker, research manager at Outride. “It really goes beyond just thinking about exercise and weight and things like that and instead think more holistically about how sharp you feel throughout the day and what your mental health is like.”
Walker said that children who cycled outside more often during the COVID-19 pandemic reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and that daily activity can stimulate the development of more brain cells, leading to better brain function.
“And that can also lead to strong connections between brain cells that will ultimately affect memory and learning,” she said. “These are really important changes that happen in the brain when you ride a bike and can seep into your day-to-day activities – whether you’re focusing on school or taking a complex exam – it’s really exciting, and there’s less awareness of that side of it.” “
A natural ADHD treatment
The benefits of cycling for ADHD sufferers hold personal meaning for Sinyard, who has the disorder.
“Any exercise is good, but there’s something about the zen-like movement of kicking and sensory balance, plus it’s fun,” he said. “We have an opiate crisis today, and I believe there will be a crisis that will come with our children being over-medicated.”
Walker also noted that Reiss’ research looks at how the brain changes during a bike ride, which is important because previous research only looked at a snapshot before and after a ride.
“But what really happens when you’re out on a trail and you feel that flow state,” Walker said. “That is unknown. So they’ll be one of the first groups to look at what actually happens when you’re on a bike.”
Reiss said the brain imaging device costs $600,000 and is funded by the National Institutes of Health. The helmet used in the test was made by Specialized under the direction of Stanford to house the sensor, and it wasn’t just a matter of removing the padding.
“When you put that cap on, there are all these different modules that are going to be sensitive to movement and light, so they had to design the helmet to be secure, but still comfortable for the participant and also secure,” Walker said.
While the highlight was the research team’s findings, the summit also detailed how Outrides Riding for Focus school cycling programs have impacted academics and improved student mental health. This is the 11th season since the first school pilot program, with more than 50,000 students participating each year. Walker found that the percentage of children in the program who have not ridden a bike varies across the country, depending on rural or urban settings and socioeconomic factors.
“We have some schools where it could be 5%. We have schools that we work with where over 50% of the class has never ridden a bike and those are actually the schools where we have a big impact. Many of these students may be shy, but when they see their peers also learning to ride in the same place, they build confidence together.”
As of 2014, more than 250 schools have partnered with Outride, which has committed more than $1.5 million to more than 170 community cycling programs through its Outride Fund.