Why everyone should be cycling
In our hi-tech age, we can access nearly everything online, without the need to move an inch. This makes life much more convenient but there is a downside; much has been said and written about the negative effects of an inactive lifestyle on health, and not just on physical health but on mood, concentration and general wellbeing.
Everyone can enjoy and benefit from exercise and cycling is a hugely beneficial and fun way to maintain an active and balanced lifestyle. Studies show that moderate physical activity, such as cycling, strengthens the immune system. Exercise puts demands on the skeletal system and can strengthen it. It also helps increase stamina and mobility.
Obesity is a much discussed contemporary concern and cycling is ideal for targeting problems with body weight, enabling people who might not otherwise move easily to increase their physical fitness and stimulate fat burning processes. Cycling is especially good for aerobic exercise, as it generally places less of a strain on the body than other endurance sports.
Physical activity can serve as a regulator to relieve stress and can therefore contribute to improved emotional wellbeing. It can help counteract anxiety, depression and other psychological problems. Improved stamina reduces tiredness and fatigue and promotes a sense of wellbeing. Indeed, many first-time riders describe the feeling as exhilarating and empowering.
The challenge is to make cycling accessible to everybody. Inclusive cycling can sometimes look a bit different to cycling on a standard bicycle. Bikes come in a wide range of different shapes and sizes to meet the requirements of a broad range of users. There are tricycles, hand-bikes, recumbent cycles, and bikes for two riders, to name but a few.
A number of organisations across the country run inclusive cycle sessions on a non-profit basis, providing opportunities for children and adults with a wide range of physical, cognitive and emotional impairments to enjoy the benefits of cycling. Thanks to Britain’s highly successful sporting year in 2012, public funding has been funnelled into sport, including a larger proportion, for the first time, for disability sport.
How cycling benefited students at two SEN schools
Wheels for Wellbeing recently ran cycling sessions at two South London SEN schools. A group of fourteen Key Stage 3 pupils at a Lambeth special school took part in the sessions. All have complex learning difficulties, including some with autistic spectrum disorders, and all are working below National Curriculum levels with minimal, if any, speech. A number of the group can display challenging behaviours. Most of the pupils have under-developed gross and fine motor skills and physical coordination. Many of the pupils have limited access to leisure facilities during their free time.
The broad aims of the sessions from the school’s perspective were:
- to develop students’ motor skills and coordination
- to help students access a health and fitness activity that may otherwise be unavailable to them
- to help students learn or develop a physical skill.
- to aid participation in a group activity, in an unfamiliar setting, where students are required to interact with each other and with unfamiliar adults
- to help students experience a new activity
- to encourage students to follow the routines and structures of a new activity
- to help students enjoy a new activity, that they may not otherwise have access to, outside the school environment.
Over the course of the sessions, the pupils showed significant progress in all of the areas the school was seeking to develop. In the initial stages, many pupils needed support and prompting to use the bikes, put helmets on and ride on the track in the correct way.
As pupils became more familiar with the activity, though, the school noticed that most of them quickly learned the routines, and showed greater levels of independence. They would, for example, arrive at the venue and go to find their helmets without being prompted.
Most of the students developed a preference for particular bikes, and would make independent choices about their equipment. Some students, who were initially more tentative about participating, became more confident when working with members of staff on the side-by-side bikes. Most were able to ride one of the bikes independently. Evidence of problem solving was also seen, as some of the students worked out for themselves how to use the different types of equipment.
All of the pupils showed improved physical coordination. The amount of exercise the students got from continuously cycling round the track was significant, and the pupils showed how much they enjoyed the activity by their high levels of participation.
Teachers from Nash College in Bromley also found that a more structured form of cycling session was very rewarding for their students. Consistent availability of equipment, and familiarity with regular staff on the programme, enabled the students to feel comfortable engaging in an activity that many of them find physically challenging. It also meant that the students were more able to anticipate the different stages of the session and therefore to participate in a calmer and more proactive manner.
Having sessions exclusively for the school meant that students with challenging behaviour were able to learn in a relatively safe environment. As a result, some of them may be able to take part in public sessions as a leisure activity in the future. One student in the group who initially refused even to wear a helmet at the first session is now completing eleven laps at Herne Hill Velodrome.
A positive future
The investment of Olympics and Paralympics legacy funding in inclusive sporting projects means that at-risk groups and those who are hard to reach are now getting more attention and enabling resources from sporting bodies and charities. More sports are looking to extend their appeal, helped greatly by the publicity and mainstreaming of disabled people in sport achieved by the London Games. Blind football clubs are becoming more inclusive, with disabled and able bodied participants, mountain biking centres are making trails accessible to adaptive bikes, and sailing, traditionally the domain of the privileged, is catching up with specially constructed boats for use by disabled sailors.
Cycling is beneficial to mind, body and the environment. With the recently published Mayor’s Vision for Cycling in London, the capital should see a significant rise in cycling numbers. Such initiatives are also starting to spread across the country and there is no reason why increases in participation shouldn’t include more cyclists with disabilities and SEN.
Isabelle Clement is the Director of Wheels for Wellbeing, a charity supporting disabled people to cycle in London: www.wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk