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Biking as medicine

September 4, 2018

POCATELLO — Cade VanEtten can bunny-hop the tallest curb on a mountain bike, while Xan Roberts isn’t far removed from training wheels.

Despite their differing skill levels, the children both claim to have a keener focus on classwork Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — when they get to start the school day with 40 minutes of pedaling and burning excess energy.

They’ve been participants in a new program at the Pocatello Community Charter School called Riding for Focus, which aims to prove biking can be the best medicine for middle-schoolers who have trouble behaving or paying attention in class. The program is not for credit, and will resume for the current school year in October.

PCCS was one of 39 schools from 17 states awarded a grant covering a fleet of Specialized Pitch mountain bikes, each valued at about $800, from the bike manufacturer’s charitable foundation.

About half of Riding for Focus students have a special accommodation in their school education plans to help them overcome learning or attention issues. Schools track academic performance of all participants and share the information anonymously with Specialized for inclusion in a database.

“What it’s supposed to help is to get the energy out of your system so when you get into class you’re calmer and you focus better,” explained VanEtten, an athletic eighth-grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I honestly think it works really well. It’s only 30 minutes to an hour for this class, but it does just fine.

“Another top biker in the class, seventh-grader Hayden Baumeister, has noticed he fidgets less on Riding for Focus days.

“I do have a challenge focusing in class,” Baumeister said. “I get distracted easily, and this class helps a lot.

“PCCS Adventure Coordinator Travis Kumm learned the Specialized Foundation had accepted his grant request about a year ago, and was subsequently flown to a special training on bike maintenance and program curriculum. The local Specialized dealer, Barrie’s Ski & Sports, helped Kumm assemble his school’s 35 new front-suspension bikes in time to start the PCCS Riding for Focus program inmid-September of 2017.

“When we don’t have it, I get kids showing up disappointed and frustrated,” Kumm said.

PCCS has also started teaching mountain biking to middle-schoolers as part of its general, adventure-based curriculum, along with rock climbing, winter sports, camping and backpacking.

The school has yet to evaluate participants’ academic data, but Kumm has seen anecdotal evidence that the program is already achieving its goals, especially among children with ADHD.

“I’ve heard tremendous things from some of the toughest students about how this has impacted their lives,” Kumm said. “I knew personally that was going to happen because I was probably one of those students … who had undesired behaviors. It was just because I had pent-up energy and I didn’t know how to get rid of it in the right way.

Kumm explained he found a “release” in biking, and he remains an avid cyclist.

Riding for Focus was born from a 2012 study, commissioned by Specialized Bicycle Components CEO Mike Sinyard. The study found students improved academically through participation in a six-week biking program, including three weekly sessions in which they elevated their heart rates to above 135 beats per minute for at least 20 minutes.

The encouraging results prompted the Specialized Foundation to launch a formal Riding for Focus program for grades six through nine in 2014.

David Wood, the foundation’s director of program management, said the first full assessment of a single participating school, completed last fall, showed a 14 percent improvement in math scores and a 7 percent gain in language arts scores among all participants.

Wood said the foundation is analyzing new data, including from seven pilot schools in which 220 participants have been wearing heart-rate monitors for a more scientific evaluation of how exercise affects school performance. Students in the pilot schools — PCCS isn’t among them — are also being evaluated for body-mass index and social behavior.

The foundation funds a research lab at Stanford University, where researchers are studying the effects of cycling on brain activity. Wood said the researchers have started development of a bike helmet with blood-flow sensors, which will enable the foundation to conduct its analysis outdoors.

The foundation will announce the next round of school grants before the end of May.

Like many of the students who enjoy his program, Specialized’s founder and CEO, Sinyard, struggled with ADHD as a child. Wood explained Sinyard grew concerned when his son was also diagnosed with ADHD, and the boy’s medication was adversely affecting his personality.

“We want to get to the point where cycling can be prescribed as a treatment to help kids have success socially, in academics and health rather than any of the alternative treatments available now,” Wood said, adding exercise should at least be “part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

“For all of the gains Specialized is documenting to children’s physical wellness and academic performance, Kumm emphasized improvements in self-esteem, exposure to a new life skill and the feeling of personal accomplishment his students experience shouldn’t be overlooked.

Early on, Kumm considers Xan Roberts — a seventh-grader with special needs — to be his greatest Riding for Focus success story. Kumm said some PCCS faculty worried Roberts would be overwhelmed by the program, and she lacked basic biking skills on her first day.

“When she came here, she was very concerned and worried but had an amazing attitude of wanting to push it,” Kumm said.

Now, Roberts confidently rolls over rough terrain.

“I was a complete newbie because I didn’t know all of those basics, like steering and pedaling fast enough. I was still on training wheels back then — until this class,” Roberts said. “I started learning how to ride my bike better and better.

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