Cycling has seen a huge growth in popularity in recent years, with more and more people of all ages deciding to invest in their own bike and take to the road. A survey by Sport England showed that the Olympic effect led to a massive increase in the number of individuals cycling at least once per week, bringing the total number to just under two million by 2012. According to the latest figures this trend has continued along the same route, with the total now above 2.1 million in England alone (Sport England, 2014).
In October the government announced plans to double these numbers by 2015, outlining its aim to generate additional funding for cycle schemes across the England (Department for Transport, 2014). The initial cycle delivery plan includes efforts to increase by 55 per cent the amount of school children aged 5 to 10 years who either walk or cycle to school, and states the government’s intention to bring the UK in line with countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands, where regular cycling is the norm.
There are a myriad of positive effects of cycling. There are clear benefits to an individual’s physical health, with numerous studies noting a strong correlation between cycling and level of fitness. One such study by Ostergaard et al (2013) investigated the association between the mode of school transport used and the physical fitness levels of children and adolescents in Norway. The anthropometry, cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness of students at 63 elementary and high-schools were tracked, alongside the type of transport used. The findings clearly indicated the positive effects of active commuting, with cycling proving to give a greater benefit than walking. In light of these results, the study concluded that cycling to school could be an important supplement in the prevention of adverse weight gain in children. Childhood obesity is of ongoing concern in many countries, and therefore any efforts that can be implemented on a wider scale to reverse the obesity trend should be embraced.
Another described benefit of cycling is the improvement to cognitive function. A study published this year in the May edition of the European Journal of Sport Science looked at the effect of varying intensities of acute cycling on the academic achievement of young children. The study found that exercise had an improving effect on spelling regardless of the intensity level, and moderate levels of exercise also improved reading ability, and concluded that acute bouts of exercise can selectively improve cognition in preadolescent children (Duncan & Johnson, 2014).
With this in mind, the government announcement to encourage greater numbers of individuals to take up cycling is welcome news. Engaging youngsters in physical activities that they associate with a routine part of their day such as cycling along the school route will lead to healthier, fitter citizens, less congestion in higher populated areas, lower levels of pollution and a more productive future workforce; all of which are advantageous to society as a whole.
There are several schemes across the UK directly targeted at getting young students to use bikes on a regular basis. Bikeability is a cycling proficiency scheme that runs courses in schools for children wanting to develop the skills and knowledge needed to ride on public roads. The groups are split into three different ability levels dependant on the student’s current experience, and cover all aspects of cycling from the basics of balance and control to planning and making a solo journey by themselves on busier roads.
The British Cycling organisation offers training for teachers to deliver entry-level cycling and coaching skills to their pupils (this also includes anyone aged 18 and over that already works or volunteers within the schools sector). The scheme gives schools the opportunity to offer cycling activities within the school environment, such as bike clubs that develop basic skills such as coordination, balance, safety, and bike maintenance. Additionally, the British Schools Cycling Association actively promotes cycling at all ability levels to those in full time education by offering skill sessions, leisure rides and competitions in all regions of the UK. This allows students to take their initial bike skills further and compete against others in a safe environment.
There are many additional benefits to cycling, such as reduced journey speed and cost, the extra freedom it gives children as they grow up, and the secondary effect of added confidence and independence that children develop as a result of being able to travel about by themselves. Ensuring that a child begins their cycling journey with the right skills and knowledge is more likely to lead to a lifelong enjoyment of cycling.