Opinion: teaching children to cycle at an early age increases their likelihood of a physically active and healthier life

In light of the strong relationship between health and physical activity, it is essential to encourage children to be as active as possible. Motor competence, perceived motor competence, weight status and self-efficacy are all key determinants in increasing the likelihood that children will be active and live a physically active life.

Motor competence is ability at fundamental skills like running, jumping, kicking and balancing and also lifelong skills like cycling and swimming. Teaching children these skills in early childhood provides the best opportunity for a more physically active and healthier life.

The early years are particularly important, as children before the age of seven have not yet hit the "proficiency barrier". This is a hypothetical barrier that children go through around this age when their perception of how good they are at various skills goes from being inflated to accurate. In other words, most children before the age of seven will believe themselves to possess proficiency in skills that they do not! This inflated view of self tends to work in the child’s favour as it elicits a "try and try again" mentality, as the fear associated with failing can’t perform its chokehold like it does to so many of us.

From RTÉ Archives, a Youngline report on bicycle polo in Dublin's Phoenix Park in 1984

When children are given the opportunity to practice a variety of skills before they reach the proficiency barrier, they will be more likely to have good motor competence. This should result in a higher perception of self and lead to a lifelong pattern of engagement in physical activity. If these opportunities are not presented, then this results in low self-esteem, leading to a spiral of disengagement that is very hard to get out of.

So what has cycling to do with this? Cycling is a complex skill that is not easily acquired. However, cycling is a particularly valuable lifelong skill as it doesn’t require sustained involvement in a sport or facilities such as a gym or swimming pool. Additionally, cycling is a non-weight bearing sport and so can be enjoyed throughout the lifespan. A lot of failed attempts are required before independent cycling occurs. Recent research carried out by the author at the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU, and funded by the Irish Research Council and Yvolution Ltd, found that preschool children who attended cycling lessons took on average 12 attempts before a successful trial.

From RTÉ One News, a report on a new cycle to school initiative in Galway

Balance bikes and bikes with stabilisers have both been proven as valuable tools to teach children to cycle. The advantage of our two most common precursors is that they both remove different elements of the skill which in turn allows further aspects to be developed first. Balance bikes allow the skill of cycling to be enhanced by removing the need to pedal, allowing the child to focus on steering and balance. Bikes with stabilisers use a similar approach by removing the need to balance, allowing the child to focus on steering and pedalling.

In terms of benefits, provisional evidence from the author’s research found that 50% of children who practiced on a bike with stabilisers and 75% of children who practiced on balance bikes learnt to cycle independently after five weeks. This suggest balance bikes to be a more time effective method.

Cycling has become increasingly popular in Ireland with the most notable change being the near 43% increase in the amount of people who cycled to work from 2011 to 2016. Many countries around the world are altering their environments to include more bicycle-friendly roads as a result of cycling becoming a key focus of physical activity promotion. This is not surprising as cycling appropriately taxes the cardiorespiratory and metabolic functions of the whole body at different intensities. There is indisputable evidence highlighting cycling not only as having health benefits and a means to meet recommended physical activity guidelines, but it also has an economic benefit.

Cycling through water in the Bokrijk park in Genk in Belgium

The Netherlands is well known for cycle-friendly infrastructure with 27% of trips made on bicycles and 30% of commuters cycling to work. This cycling lifestyle has had major positive effects on both health and the economy. Cycling in the Netherlands prevents around 6,500 deaths per year and it is estimated that the Dutch live half a year longer due to cycling. The total economic health benefit of cycling has been estimated at €19 billion per year compared to €0.5 billion a year spent on infrastructure for cycling.

While the number of Ireland’s cycling commuters is on the rise, the rising figures still only account for three percent of all commuters. We still have a long way to go if we want to see some of the tremendous benefits seen in the Netherlands. While big infrastructure change is likely necessary for dramatic changes to occur, daily habit changes can have massive personal benefits.

A RTÉ Brainstorm featuring Jenny Kavanagh talking about how risky play is good for kids

A change to only 20 minutes of cycling a day from none at all can reduce risk of all-cause mortality by 15%. Similarly, a 28% reduction in risk of all-cause mortality can be achieved from three hours of cycling a week. Further to this there is an inverse relationship between BMI and cycling volume in both men and women. Consequently, it is of upmost importance that we teach our children to cycle in the early years in order to increase their likelihood of a physically active and a healthier life.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ