As a parent or carer, every milestone is exciting but comes tinged with a degree of fear. For every milestone is a step towards their independence. Nothing exemplifies this more than when your little one learns to ride a bike.
One turn of the pedals, a wobble, another turn and they are away. Full of pride and adventure. While you watch on; fretting over their newly found freedom, full of fear for their safety.
By Dr Josephine Perry – who runs a sports psychology consultancy – Performance in Mind. Her career spans across journalism, PR and crisis communication across private corporations and government. She is a regular contributor to Athletics Weekly & has previously written for Cycling Weekly. She is the proud owner of five bikes and is always looking for an excuse to add another!
This fear is so strong that a recent Evans Cycles commissioned YouGov research found that 19% of parents in Britain have a child that cannot ride a bike and that even when they can, a third (32%) of adults would not allow their kids to ride a bike unsupervised. These children are missing out on a massive right of passage to gaining their freedom, having an easy way to stay fit and active and failing to learning a lifelong skill.
It is recommended that children between 5 and 17 do at least 60 minutes moderate to vigorous exercise a day to protect them against high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, low cardiovascular fitness, low bone density and depression. This amount of exercise should also improve their social and cognitive development, boost their self-esteem, improve their movement skills and raise their academic performance in school. The more time children spend being active, the more of these benefits they see, many lasting long into adult life.
Currently however, despite all these documented health benefits, children’s physical activity levels are low. 2013 research found that only 30 to 40% of the 10 to 12 year olds meet the daily recommended guidelines of 60 minutes a day and 30% of UK children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese. Being overweight during childhood has serious health consequences, not just when you are young but also in adulthood, and 60% of those who are obese as children stay obese as they get older.
A really easy way to make a big difference would be to have far more of our children cycling to school. Children’s cycling for transport levels are low, although it is an accessible and inexpensive way to obtain their recommended daily hour of moderate-to vigorous physical activity. In the UK there are 1.37 million secondary school children who have a journey of less than 10 miles to school. Yet Evans’ research found that only 3% of those children do their journey by bike. A 2012 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that children who cycled to cycle to school did more than double the amount of cycling than those who didn’t and were far more likely to meet the 60 minutes a day requirement. These children all benefited from regular daily exercise, a healthier body composition, a lower body weight and higher levels of cardiovascular fitness. Environmentally too, each child that cycles rather than being driven to school creates ecological and economic benefits, reduces traffic noise and congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions.
Getting your kids cycling early doesn’t mean you are mentally lining them up for the 2038 Tour de France. There is, quite rightly, a backlash against children training seriously for a single sport too early as the current research finds it increases their anxiety and stress, heightens their risk of overuse injuries and burnout and actually makes them less likely to have a long-term career in their sport as they find the high-performance pressures prevent enjoyment and they lose motivation and passion.
So, to ensure the benefits of cycling are not lost by trying to gain immediate competitive success it is helpful to keep their cycling as just one element of many sports they take part in. Sampling lots of sports in this way helps children build a foundation of different experiences and a wide variety of skills that are enjoyable but also contribute to their long-term physicality.
To get your children riding safely for life there are two key elements to focus on…
Teach them skills so they are confident
Giving our children a lifelong love of cycling can be achieved by following the first two stages of the ‘Long Term Athlete Development plan; giving them an active start and then teaching them the FUNdamentals; with the emphasis being on fun. Studies looking at cycling accidents in children show that they are mainly involved in single-bicycle accidents so it is really important to work on their cycling and traffic skills. Once they have learnt and practiced these skills they will feel a lot more confident to go out and explore on their bikes, and ride to school if feasible.
Model great cycling behaviour
The other key way to get kids on bikes is to set an example. Research has found that as well as feeling confident their skills on their bike, the other thing that makes kids ride, particularly to school, is whether their parents and friends encourage it. The studies have found that parental encouragement, facilitation, logistical support and simply modelling great cycling behaviour have all been found to positively impact how much a child cycles.