Mike Sinyard found a way to conquer his ADHD. Then he built a multi-million dollar company around it. As the legend goes, Sinyard, the founder and chairman of Specialized Bicycle Components, used to have trouble concentrating and focusing on tasks but found that bicycling regularly seemed to somehow diffuse those symptoms. Over the last three and a half decades his improved attention and clarity—and of course his passion for the sport—have propelled Specialized toward an estimated $500 million in annual sales.
To continue growing, Specialized needs to draw more young riders into that sport. But within the company, there’s been worry about what else happens if they don’t. Today, many kids with ADHD are being treated pharmacologically without much thought to whether physical activity might be another outlet: Nearly 11% of school-aged children are now diagnosed with ADHD, a 41% increase over the last decade. Since 2007, there’s been a 26% jump the prescription rate for treatment.
So in 2015, Specialized launched the Specialized Foundation, a nonprofit that donates bikes, helmets, and service gear to middle schools for use in P.E. classes through a program called Riding For Focus. In July, that foundation announced a major expansion: It’s moving into 20 new schools this fall to reach a total of 36 schools in more than a dozen states, including California, Texas, Louisiana, and New York.
As the program’s name suggests, the goal is to give Sinyard’s theory—that pedaling might have some mental payoff—a real road test. Shortly after launching, the foundation partnered with Central Michigan University to develop a protocol that schools are using to track the scholastic impact on their kids. Last year, it made $400,000 in contributions to schools and medical research.
While the foundation hasn’t published formal studies, Ted Theocheung, the foundation’s CEO, says that early results show that bicycling may improve the intellectual performance of all students, not just those with ADHD. At current Riding For Focus schools, students who rode three days a week for 20 minutes in a targeted heart-rate zone for six weeks straight are seeing improvement on standardized math and English tests taken after that exercise period, compared to others doing traditional P.E. activities like running, or calisthenics. “While we started looking at the benefits for kids with ADHD academically, physically, and wellness-wise, it turns out that this actually benefits all kids, although it is most noticeable in kids with ADHD,” says Theocheung,
Company execs likely weren’t surprised. The work that eventually begot the foundation started years ago with similar promise. In 2012, Specialized partnered with RTSG Neuroscience Consultants, a research firm, to track what would happen to the mental acuity of about 50 kids at two middle schools in Natick, Massachusetts if given the chance to bike outside for 30 minutes every day before school for roughly one month.
According to a subsequent white paper, after one ride, those with ADHD performed performing more accurately than their non-participating peers on a so-called “executive function” tests of working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. (Again, it’s light on statistics.) After the program, nearly all participants reported feeling more positive, emotionally centered, and did better on a long term memory test compared to their non-cycling cohorts.
The response time for answering questions slowed down, which may be another good thing: Researchers posited that it meant there was more deliberation, instead of impulsivity. And almost everyone lost weight: Kids shrunk about a half-inch around the waistline.
Riding For Focus complies with National Association and Physical Education standards so that any school can plug into their core curriculum. Topics covered include basic bike maintenance and inspection, riding skills and signaling training, and rules for group and road riding so those who venture off campus will stay safe.
The next step is to figure out what’s really happening inside participants’ heads. To do that, Specialized has formed a partnership with Stanford’s Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research, which is using a portable brain imaging process called functional near-infrared spectrometry (fNIRS)—basically, it involves flashing probes strapped to a lightweight cap—to allow researchers to more closely monitor mental functions during riding, something CT and fMRI machines aren’t good at. (Those require patients to lie down and stay motionless instead.) The goal is to map how different riding locales, intensities, and durations affect the activity in regions associated with strong memory, sustained attention, and focus-driven thinking, and eventually compare that to other sports.
To be fair, plenty of research has shown that exercising before test taking correlates with academic performance, and that exercising outside may boost scores even more. Yet the foundation has an early theory about why riding could work best: It requires both balance and constantly looking for potential hazards that might knock you off the bike as you move forward at a faster than usual rate of speed. “If you think of it like an engine analogy, the more cylinders firing or the more your brain is warmed up, and the more information the brain is able to retain,” says Theocheung.
Specialized wants to reach 200 schools by 2020. To do so, it’s soliciting for matching grants from community groups—the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation, for instance, just backed two Bay Area schools—and will partner with other retailers if necessary to make up any product shortfalls. It generally gives about 30 bikes per school, but when one school in Virginia recently needed 50 for kids, the foundation enlisted competitor Giant bicycles to cover the difference.
The question of whether those riders may stick to it already seems answerable. “There’s no kid sitting there saying. ‘I want to do 10 more minutes of jumping jacks.’ They do want to ride longer,” adds Theocheung. “So I think that’s going to be the magical piece in our equation.”