Can biking make you smarter?

The academic benefits of exercise.
by Darren Kessner

Riding a bicycle has many well-known benefits, including increased physical fitness, decreased stress levels, and lower environmental impact, in addition to the economic benefits discussed in last week’s column. What is not so well-known is that bicycle riding, and physical exercise in general, has a beneficial effect on academic performance.

In the past decade, there has been an explosion of articles describing the strong correlation between fitness levels and academic performance in children. This research has garnered the interest of education policy makers who are interested in increasing academic test scores. One study in particular was performed by the California Department of Education in 2005, using Physical Fitness Test and California Standards Test scores from 5th, 7th, and 9th grade students. The study found a significant positive correlation between physical fitness scores and academic scores, across grade levels, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Of course, correlation is not the same as causation, which is why a 2009 study by Professor Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois is so interesting. Dr. Hillman’s group investigated the immediate effects of exercise by having 20 school-aged children complete cognitive tests in two sessions, one after 20 minutes of aerobic exercise on a treadmill, and one without the exercise. The results showed that aerobic exercise increased performance on academic tests (reading comprehension, spelling, and arithmetic), in addition to increasing accuracy and decreasing response time on a cognitive function test.

With regards to the particular benefits of cycling, the story of Adam Leibovitz is instructive. Adam was diagnosed with ADHD as a 1st grader, and was prescribed Ritalin at the age of 10. He also started riding a bicycle as a young boy, and by the time he was in high school, Adam was competing in national races. During his training, Adam noticed that after hard weekend training sessions, he could concentrate better, even without taking his medication. Adam began to use cycling to control his condition, to the point that he was completely off medication by the time he went to college. The full story of Adam Leibowitz can be found in an article by Bruce Barcott on the Bicycling magazine website (search for “Riding is My Ritalin”). This excellently written article includes several references to other studies on cycling, exercise, ADHD, and academic performance.

The academic benefit of exercise is one reason (of many) why programs encouraging kids and parents to walk or bike to school are so important. For example, Safe Routes To School programs, which exist at both at the federal and state level, provide grant money to schools and local governments to make it safer and easier for kids and parents to walk or ride to school. Culver City was recently awarded a Safe Routes grant for bicycle and pedestrian improvements around Linwood Howe Elementary School. These improvements will be implemented over the next couple of years, and the city plans to submit grants for the other schools in the district. The specific details of the improvements will be described in next week’s column.

Route of the Week:
Here’s a great way to use the Ballona Creek Bike Path to get to the Helms Bakery area. You can enter the Ballona Creek Bike Path in Culver City at Sawtelle, Sepulveda, the bridge near Lindberg Park, Overland, or Duquesne. Ride East until the end of the bike path at Syd Kronenthal Park. Exit the park, ride on any of the Northbound residential streets, and turn left on Jacob St. Ride to the end, where you’ll turn right on Helms Ave. Cross Washington Blvd to get to the new Helms Bakery pedestrian zone, where you will find bike racks.

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