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ADHD and Cycling: It’s All in Your Head

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New research on middle-school kids explores the link between riding and brainpower—and argues for adding more exercise into the lesson plans

By Bruce Barcott


On a recent morning in the Boston suburb of Natick, the halls of Wilson Middle School buzzed with the anticipation of a ride. Eighth-grade teacher Mike Hill, a gentle giant of a man, herded 18 squealing, laughing kids into helmets and out the door.

“AJ, can you sign everybody in?” Hill asked one boy, who dutifully checked names off a list.

The kids walked a fleet of red Specialized mountain bikes to the parking lot. A misty rain dampened the morning light. I found a spare bike and pedaled over to Hill. “Last ride,” he said. “I’m going to miss it.”

Though it may not look it, this parking lot sits on the cutting edge of brain science. Hill’s students were volunteers in a new study probing the connections between riding, behavior, and brain function. Lindsay Shaw and Alex Thornton, researchers associated with Harvard professor John Ratey, were testing the kids to see if a program of before-school riding improves their brainpower. The data Shaw and Thornton collect may show precisely how the brain’s electrical functions react to a regular dose of exercise. The researchers are especially interested in the effects of cycling on kids with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). People afflicted with ADHD have a difficult time staying focused and controlling their behavior, and crackle with unbridled energy. The disorder occurs in 3 to 5 percent of preschool and school-age children, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

“Some recent studies indicate that the brain processes information more efficiently after exercise,” Shaw explained earlier. One study that measured the neural functioning of ADHD-diagnosed kids after exercise found that their brains looked more similar to those of kids who didn’t have the disorder. “Exercise seemed to provide a cognitive boost,” she said.

The researchers tested the Wilson students prior to the four-week program. After this final session, they’ll test them again to see if there’s any significant change in their cognitive functioning. The researchers also took two “acute” measures in the middle of the program, testing the electrical currents in the kids’ brains immediately before and after their morning ride. Another group of seventh- and eighth-graders across town at Kennedy Middle School will start the program tomorrow. Ratey, Shaw, and Thornton expect to publish results early in 2013.

Back at Wilson, Mike Hill snapped his helmet strap closed. “Listen up!” he told the kids. “This is our last ride. It’s been tremendous fun for me. I hope it’s been fun for you too. When you come back today, take your helmet with you. Those are yours to keep.”

Sounds of amazement and delight from the kids.

“All right!” said Hill. “Let’s rock and roll!”

Hill took off, leading a middle-school peloton into the leafy neighborhoods of Natick. I pedaled hard to keep up.

THE RESEARCH GOING on in Natick is a rare instance of cognitive theory being tested in the real world. It’s also a pioneering effort in the cycling world.

Three years ago I wrote a story in BICYCLING about a nationally competitive junior cyclist named Adam Leibovitz. (You can read the piece from the November 2009 issue here.) Adam, then 18, had been diagnosed with ADHD in first grade. After trying the commonly prescribed stimulant Ritalin, he quit the drug in high school and switched to a steady riding regimen to control his ADHD. The article was titled “Riding Is My Ritalin,” because that’s how Leibovitz used his daily exercise dose.

One of the surprising aspects of my reporting was discovering how little research had been done on the effects of exercise on the developing brains of kids—any kids, let alone those with ADHD. Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, seemed to be a lone voice in the wilderness when he wrote his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry,” he wrote. Exercise “has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

Despite Ratey’s work, exercise studies remained difficult to find because they were difficult to fund. The reason was simple. Exercise wasn’t a drug that pharmaceutical companies could sell.

That’s starting to change. At the Morgan Hill, California, headquarters of Specialized Bicycle Components, Leibovitz’s story caught the attention of founder Mike Sinyard. “I have ADHD, and so do a lot of people who ride for hours and hours,” he told me. “As riders, we know it has this effect on the brain. It’s not just about being physically active. There’s a Zen-like meditation to the rotation of the pedals, almost like a Buddhist chant.”

Sinyard called Ratey and asked how Specialized could contribute to the cause. Working with Simon Dunne, the company’s head of global bicycle advocacy, Ratey organized the study at the schools near Boston. “Cycling is a natural for the work we’re doing,” Ratey said. “It’s fun, it gets kids outdoors, and it gets the heart rate up.”

Aside from physical education teachers, cyclists are among Ratey’s biggest supporters. Three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond is one of Ratey’s most visible cheerleaders. LeMond has spoken in the past about his problems focusing as a kid, and how cycling helped him overcome them.

Ratey already had a husband-and-wife research team lined up. Lindsay Shaw is a sports psychologist who’s worked both with professional athletes in her private practice and with attention-challenged kids at a Toronto clinic. Alex Thornton taught middle and high school for seven years before earning a PhD in educational leadership.

Thornton had long believed teachers ought to know how the brain learns. “There’s all this research, all this information available, and nobody bothers to get it to the teachers,” he told me. Two years ago Thornton read Spark, contacted Ratey, and told him: You’ve written this book. Let’s get it out there into the classrooms. Since then he and Shaw have been in constant motion, conducting research and giving professional development seminars on the fitness-brain connection.

Ratey, Shaw, and Thornton approached Natick Public Schools Superintendent Peter Sanchioni with the idea for the study. Sanchioni was already a big believer in the connection between exercise and cognitive ability. He’d seen it in action. About four years ago Kathleen Tullie, the mother of a Natick elementary-school student, was inspired by Spark to start a before-school fitness program run by parent volunteers. The program quickly gained media attention and spread across the country. Today Tullie’s program, called Build Our Kids’ Success, receives funding from the Reebok Foundation and has expanded to two dozen schools around the United States.

Impressed with Tullie’s success, Sanchioni pushed to insert an additional fitness component into the district’s middle-school curriculum. When Natick’s Kennedy Middle School replaced a floating “extra academic” class period with a high-intensity fitness class taught by Noel Vigue, a former Boston University strength and conditioning coach, “teachers were telling us they could see the difference,” Sanchioni said. “Those kids came in from that fitness period on target, ready to learn.”

Shaw and Thornton asked for permission to set up their study at Natick’s two middle schools. Sanchioni agreed. Specialized then shipped thirty $400 Hard-rock bikes to Landry’s Bicycles in town, where mechanics assembled them and trucked them over to Mike Hill.

AT THE TOP of a long, gentle rise, Hill stopped his line of riders to do a data check. “What’s your heart rate?” he said.

One kid called out, “Ninety-four!”

“Ninety-four?” said Hill. “Check that again. If you’re at 94, you’re dead.”

Other numbers come out. One-ninety-one. One-seventy-seven.

Hill turned to one of the kids. “Whattaya got, Matt?”

“One-twenty-eight.”

“Aw, ya make me sick.” The kids grinned.

As they pedaled off along the route, Hill shook his head. “Matt’s amazing,” he said. “Kid can pedal uphill all day, heart rate never tops 130.”

This is a big part of the program. Instead of trying to win a race, the kids focus on finding and maintaining their ideal heart rate. For some it’ll be in the 170s, for others it’s the 120s. “We want them to keep that 65- to 85-percent-of-max heart rate,” said Noel Vigue, now Kennedy’s fitness teacher. “That’s going to look different on every kid.”

At the end of the ride, the kids recorded their maximum speed and average heart rate before racing off to class. “Don’t forget to take your helmet!” Hill called out.

As the last kid scuttled away, Hill closed the data binder and reflected on the monthlong experiment. “I have an interest in anything that will improve kids’ performance and behavior in class,” he told me. “And I know exercise does. I don’t have empirical data like [Shaw and Thornton] will, but I’ve seen it. Kids come in after a bike ride, they do better in class.”

Across town at Kennedy Middle School a few hours later, Shaw and Thornton set up equipment designed to capture that empirical data. As the Wilson students ended their four-week program, the Kennedy students were just about to start their own.

“We’ve got a few kids we still need to get baseline data on,” Shaw said as she calibrated a balance monitor.

In an adjacent room Thornton fitted EEG swim caps on the heads of two young volunteers. The caps measured their electrical brain impulses as they executed a number of cognitive tasks. “Watch this one for a minute,” Thornton said. A computer screen flashed images of animals. The EEG-capped students were told to push a button when the same image flashed twice in a row. “It’s incredibly boring,” he said. “It’s meant to be that way.” The program pushed a student’s attention span to its breaking point, he said. When they start missing double images, you know they’re losing focus. “We’ll test them again at the end of the four-week riding period,” Thornton explained, to see whether their attention span has changed.

The ADHD portion of their research comes at a time when parents and medical professionals are increasingly looking for alternatives to traditional drug therapies. A recently completed 10-year study of children with ADHD conducted by the NIMH found that medication often helps attention-challenged kids in the short term (one to two years), but those benefits wane as time goes on. “The reasons for this decline are under investigation,” NIMH officials said, “but they nevertheless signal the need for alternative treatments.”

At the same time, studies published by Charles Hillman of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, one of the world’s leading centers for exercise and brain research, continue to back up Ratey’s claims. In one published in 2011 in the journal Biological Psychology, the lab’s researchers used brain scans to look at levels of cognitive control among nine- and 10-year-old children. (Cognitive control affects things like focusing attention, flexible thinking, controlling inappropriate responses, and maintaining information—abilities critical to performance in math and reading.) The upshot: Children with higher fitness levels activated more of the brain regions responsible for cognitive control than kids with lower levels, and completed a test with greater accuracy.

The question begged by those results, of course, is whether exercise causes or correlates. Does fitness boost the kids’ mental abilities, or are the smarter kids simply raised in environments that support greater physical and intellectual fitness? That’s one of the questions Lindsay Shaw and Alex Thornton hope their research will answer.

WHAT ABOUT ADAM Leibovitz, the pioneer cyclist who gave up his Ritalin for riding? As a student at Marian University in Indianapolis, he won the men’s Division 1 criterium and led his squad to a team-time-trial championship at the 2011 USA Cycling Collegiate Road Nationals. Today, at 21, he races professionally for Chipotle-First Solar, the under-23 development squad for the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda team, both of which are managed by Jonathan Vaughters’s Slipstream Sports group.

Things have changed in John Ratey’s world, too. Five years ago, when he wrote Spark, Ratey relied heavily on data from Hillman’s lab and the real-world example of Naperville, Illinois, where the school district had introduced a radical new fitness program. He wrote extensively about Naperville largely because few other schools had the courage to try the initiative.

Ratey’s e-mail now pings regularly with requests from teachers and district administrators looking for information about the exercise-learning connection. “It’s really starting to explode,” he told me recently. At the time, he was between sessions at an education conference in Nova Scotia. He traveled there for a teachers’ meeting in the city of Dartmouth and a PE teachers’ seminar in Yarmouth; then to a cardiologists’ conference in Toronto; then to Calgary, Alberta, to talk with teachers and the city’s police chief. “He sees exercise as a possible way to help deal with juvenile delinquency,” Ratey said.

A growing body of scientific evidence backs him up. One recent study concluded that low levels of fitness are associated with declines in brain structure and function, cognitive abilities, and academic achievement. In contrast, Charles Hillman’s research has shown that a single session of exercise (20 minutes on a treadmill at 60 percent of maximum heart rate) can “charge” the brain’s neuro-electrical workings and lead to higher levels of cognitive functioning.

The Naperville revolution is slowly spreading. In Charleston, South Carolina, district athletic director Dave Spurlock worked with consultant Jean Blaydes Madigan and local fitness company Kidsfit to develop Brain Rooms—classrooms where teachers can instruct while students pedal stationary bikes or work out on treadmills or elliptical devices. Charleston isn’t a wealthy district, so Kidsfit set up the first room at no cost to the school. “When the kids are moving, they’re more focused,” Spurlock told me. “The neurochemicals needed for learning are being created right there. And the kids always seem happy.”

NATICK’S MIDDLE SCHOOLS have also become an outpost of the Spark revolution. In some ways, Kennedy isn’t an ideal petri dish for Shaw and Thornton’s study because the students aren’t starting from zero fitness. Kennedy already has one of the nation’s most progressive exercise programs.

“The whole philosophy of our school has changed in the last few years,” principal Rosemary Vickery told me. “When we started our fitness class four years ago, we anecdotally tracked the kids in that class. And teachers said, ‘Hey, there’s something about those kids. They’re always on.’ So we knew it was working for us.”

Along with the classes the school offered some stability balls for the students to use as chairs, and this year the administration added spinning bikes for the same purpose. “Have you seen our fitness-break videos?” Vickery said. This is the latest thing in school fitness: Recording short two-minute desk-ercises that teachers (and anybody) can access via YouTube. “You’ve got to try it.”

Soon after I popped into Brittany Marshall’s sixth-grade math class. “Okay guys, we’re going to do a fitness break!” Marshall announced. They pushed back their chairs and stood up while the teacher cued up this YouTube video. Onscreen, Kennedy phys-ed teacher Dave Lyth led the kids in a series of quick, fast-paced aerobic exercises. What made the two-minute clip brilliant was Lyth’s straight-man ridiculousness, hopping and jumping to the Avicii & Sebastien Drums dance hit “My Feelings For You.” Bouncing along with Lyth were four non-phys-ed teachers who, well, moved to the best of their abilities. The kids loved it. They giggled at their teachers in ridiculous positions—always a middle-school crowd pleaser—while mimicking the exercises themselves.

By the end of those two minutes, Marshall had a class full of fresh kids, many of them primed to crush some problems.

A COUPLE OF weeks after my Natick visit, I checked back with Shaw and Thornton. The Kennedy kids were riding every day, and the researchers were starting to sort through the data from the students at Wilson.

“We still have to test for retention with the Wilson students,” Shaw said. In other words: Do the kids retain the benefits of cycling after one month of not riding before school? “There could be a total drop-off effect,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

Regardless of the findings, Specialized’s Sinyard was encouraged that Shaw and Thornton were doing the research at all.

“I had this crazy vision a while back,” he said. “If this study confirms what we think is true about the benefits of riding, maybe we should put together a mock TV spot, like the ones for medications that show people all happy, but have to list possible side effects: ‘This may cause dizziness or make your hair fall out.’ We could show a kid on a bike, really smiling and engaged, and then list the side effects: ‘Your kids may develop great athletic ability and anaerobic capabilities. They might also show signs of happiness.’”

One of the data points Shaw and Thornton most desired also happened to be the simplest to compile: attendance. Bicycling may be an ideal brain-boosting exercise—a kind of cognitive superfood—not only because of the energy and balance required, but because it’s fun. So kids are more likely to do it. Of the 23 kids signed up at Wilson, only two dropped out because they didn’t like it. Three others had a hard time getting to school early. “The kids in the program at Wilson, a lot of them are bummed that it’s over,” Shaw said.

This may not be the end of it, though. Encouraged by the response at Wilson, Natick school officials have applied for grant money to pay for bikes, helmets, and a cycling coach. “We saw at the new high school that when we give them the opportunity to exercise, kids are willing to work with us,” said superintendent Peter Sanchioni. “Now we need to work with them.”