Physical activity improves mental health, yet activity levels are dropping. This is especially concerning because teenagers' mental health continues to deteriorate. In the United States, one out of every six school-age children has a mental condition.
Riding bikes is a potential way to promote physical activity to school-aged youngsters. Researchers in the United States have now looked into how teenagers' psychological well-being changes after taking part in a school-based cycling programme.
"Participation in a school cycling education program during the Covid-19 pandemic was associated with improved psychosocial well-being amongst middle schoolers in the US," said Dr Esther Walker, research director at the non-profit organisation Outride.
"While we saw promising increases in some student subgroups, certain groups had higher levels of self-reported mental wellbeing both before and after participating in the program."
"It was really encouraging to see such a positive student response to a cycling-specific physical education program," said Fletcher Dementyev, a research assistant at Loma Linda University and first author of the study published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. "This motivates us, and hopefully others, to continue investigating and developing cycling as a pathway to improved health and well-being in adolescents."
Outside is a not-for-profit organisation partnering with schools to provide cycling programs. "The Riding for Focus (R4F) program aims to equip students with basic cycling knowledge and experience, so that they may ride safely and confidently," Walker explained.
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"A bicycle can be used for leisure activities, competition, and transportation. Thus, not only are students participating in an activity that improves their health and wellbeing, but also one that empowers them to explore the world," said Dr Sean Wilson, a researcher at Loma Linda University and the study's senior author.
More than 1,200 middle schoolers, aged 11 to 14 years, participated in the program's surveys. Before and after cycling, they completed two surveys that included measures of current mental well-being and psychological functioning. Given the improvement in teenagers' mental well-being scores, short-term physical activity programs hold promise of having a positive influence on mental health and well-being in adolescents, the team said.
Next to overall well-being, the scientists examined social risk factors that influenced wellbeing pre- and post-program participation. "We focused on a number of key risk factors that affect mental health and well-being in middle school-aged children in the US, including socio-economic status, gender, and race," Wilson explained.
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Relative risk assessments indicated that males, white students, and those from high socio-economic status families still had reduced relative risk of developing psychosocial disorders post-intervention. For example, female students' wellbeing improved significantly; male students, however, still had higher wellbeing scores compared to females after the program.
There also was a significant post-program increase in the well-being of non-white students. This positive impact is supported by studies showing that physical activity programs can positively influence the psychosocial wellbeing of ethnic minorities, particularly those from low-income families.
"While participating can certainly contribute positively to one's day-to-day life, ultimately, to see large-scale improvements, changes in policy, reductions in systematic disparities in access to nutrition, health services, safe environments, and beyond the need to be put in motion," said Walker.
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The authors also pointed to limitations of their study, one being a study population that is different from the countrywide student population. "This means that our results, though insightful, aren't fully reflective of the national youth physical education context," said Dementyev. "We see this study as the beginning of a national dialogue surrounding investment in cycling education and its potential returns."