Specialized Medicine: The Impact of Cycling on ADHD

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects people of all ages worldwide and is one of the leading disorders diagnosed in childhood. The characteristic behaviors of ADHD include varying grades of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. While these behaviors may seem normal for any school-age child, in diagnosed ADHD they usually present to a degree that somehow impairs cognitive, emotional, social, and/or physical function. The average age onset of ADHD is 7 years old, affecting about 11% of American adolescents with boys being 3-4 times more prone than girls. While it remains unclear what causes ADHD, perhaps more troubling is the inability to explain why the number of school-age children diagnosed with this disorder is climbing. The rate of ADHD diagnosis increased from about 3% per year from 1997 to 2006 to 5% per year between 2003 and 2011.

Treatment for ADHD focuses on the management of symptoms, and most guidelines suggest a combination of medication, psychotherapy, and social skills training. Suprisingly, drugs that stimulate the brain such as methylphenidate and amphetamine (Ritalin and Adderall, respectively) are the most commonly-prescribed pharmaceutical agents used to attenuate behaviors associated with ADHD. While drug treatment has been shown to be up to 80% efficacious in children with ADHD, there is some controversy regarding the benefits of pharmaceutical intervention beyond just two years of using any current ADHD agents. These stimulants are also not without drawbacks, such as the relatively high cost, routine management of dosage, and side effects including but not limited to: decreased appetite, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, and tics.

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The park is mightier than the pill

Emerging research applying physical exercise as an alternative treatment for ADHD has consistently produced positive results. According to Acta Paediatrica, a handful of focused, peer-reviewed studies within the last 10 years have found that several different exercise designs can improve cognition, enhance motor and social skills, and attenuate impulsive behavior in children with ADHD. In a 2010 study, the Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology observed walks in the park to be as potent as two doses of medication with respect to enhancing concentration. Not only does it ameliorate specific symptoms of ADHD, but exercise staves off obesity which, as reported by the American Physical Therapy Association, is more prevalent among people with attention disorders. Despite this growing body of evidence, further research is warranted to clarify the type, intensity, and frequency of exercise required to positively impact impairments caused by ADHD. And who better to lead the way than one of cycling’s industry leaders: Specialized.

In 2012, Specialized Bikes and RTSG Neuroscience spent five days a week for a month measuring the effects of cycling in two groups of Massachusetts middle school-age children who were either diagnosed with or displayed ADHD-like symptoms. Outcomes identified were cognitive, emotional, social, and physical status before, during, and after the program, and researchers concluded that cycling…

  • enhances processing of information
  • improves attention and attenuates impulsivity
  • enables children to better understand their feelings
  • improves kids’ mood
  • decreases BMI and waist circumference
  • accelerates cognitive performance even after just one ride
  • is addictive! The program retained 87% of subjects initially enrolled.
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As of 2011, 6.4 million between 4-17 years of age have been diagnosed with ADHD

To be fair, research funded by an industry standing to gain from its findings presents a conflict of interest and, therefore, becomes a limitation to the study itself. But in 2011, the pharmaceutical industry alone spent $39 billion for research in the U.S., which was $8 billion more than than the National Institute of Medicine. How’s that for conflict of interest?

While the source of funding (not growing on trees) will invariably be weighed against the validity of results, isn’t it about time the money come from somewhere else, providing a potential cure free of side effects and at the fraction of the price Big Pharm can offer?

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Beyond the argument for what constitutes valid research or questioning vested interests is the story of Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard’s own life-long dealings with ADHD. Sinyard says his symptoms would subside after riding his bike, and he noticed a similar pattern with his son who also suffers from ADHD. After being further inspired by a Bicycling Magazine article entitled “Riding Is My Ritalin,” he decided to further explore the connection between bike and brain.

Furthermore, researchers involved in the early Massachusetts findings have reason to believe there may be an advantage to how cycling-specific exercises impact the power of the brain. According to Sports Psyhcology expert Dr. Lindsay Shaw Thorton:

“The findings also indicated there may be factors more unique to cycling that make it especially effective when it comes to the brain benefits of exercise. Factors like maintaining balance, being outdoors, riding in groups, and the rhythmic motion of pedaling we theorize may have contributed to our findings being so profound”

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Ritalin? Or ride?

Imagine a world where pediatricians prescribe Rockhoppers instead of Ritalin, or the day you purchase your dream bike with a health savings account. Pumptracks will take the place of walk-in clinics, and Strava will upload to your medical chart–where a “Personal Best” qualifies you for discounts on upgrades. Too dramatic? Maybe so, but it does fall in line with Sinyard’s hope that, at the very least, cycling will be taken seriously enough to become …a compliment to, and perhaps even a substitute for, medication.”  

Is it just too simple to consider cycling (and any exercise, for that matter) a viable alternate treatment for mental health when it has long been established as one for warding off other potential physical disorders and disease? Maybe you don’t suffer from unchecked inattentiveness, overactivity, or disinhibited behavior, but have you never stepped away from the day’s emotionally-draining meetings, a mentally-taxing task, or any stressful situation and used your bike as an outlet or, in this context, a treatment? Of course you have! Among the billion reasons you ride, examine the mental benefits of doing so and share them with us, Specialized, and especially anyone you suspect might be dealing with ADHD or similiar symptoms.

Stay informed on future announcements from The Specialized Foundation.

For businesses, government agencies, or community organizations interested in becoming a sponsor, email foundation@pecialized.com.

Click here for a first-hand account of the initial Specialized Massachusetts study.

Please do not attempt to self-diagnose, take medication, or begin intense exercise without first consulting a doctor. I am not a physician nor am I licensed or otherwise authorized to give medical advice. I just like to ride bikes and encourage others to join in whatever capacity best fits their needs.

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