Can cycling boost your child’s brainpower?

The idea that riding a bike, a physical action that predominantly relies on motor skills, should have an effect on a child’s intelligence seems slightly illogical. How could steering, balancing and pedaling possibly improve cognitive function? However, a number of modern studies have found evidence to support the notion that children with well-developed hand-eye coordination do go on to become better learners.

Why should this be? Previously, it had been thought that motor and cognitive skills occupied distinct and separate areas of the brain: the cerebellum and basal ganglia for motor skills; and the prefrontal cortex for cognitive skills. However, a study in 2000 by early years cognitive development researcher Professor Adele Diamond used neuroimaging and neuroanatomical analysis to show evidence of a link between the cognitive and motor centres of the human brain. Diamond’s research even demonstrated that some motor or cognitive tasks could actually invoke both cognitive and the motor centres of the brain.

Can cycling boost your child’s brainpower?

In young children particularly, this link can be especially strong. Writing on the Scientific Learning website, Dr Bill Jenkins references the work of Karen Adolph who has suggested that infants are in a constant state of adaptation because they learn to understand the world around them at the exact same time that they develop the gross and fine motor skills needed to interact with that world.

“[Infant’s] bodies are changing simultaneously as the world around them is presenting new information,” Dr Jenkins said. “Thus, their physical existence in the world, and their movement through it, is one that requires constant cognitive problem solving. In short, infants spend the vast majority of their existence, when they are not sleeping, learning how to learn.”

In a review published by the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport  Irene M.J. van der Fels, Sanne C.M. te Wierike, Esther Hartman, Marije T. Elferink-Gemser, Joanne Smith and Chris Visscherl, conducted a systematic review of a range of studies that provided some evidence of a relationship between motor skills and cognitive skills in children up to the age of 16. While there was no conclusive proof of a relationship between all motor skills and all cognitive skills, the review did say this:

“fine motor skills, bilateral body coordination, and timed performance in movements show the strongest relations with cognitive skills.”

Bilateral coordination refers to the ability to coordinate and control both sides of the body at the same time, which would certainly include cycling.

Although it studied data up to middle teenage years, this review by Van der Fels et al, felt that the highest degrees of evidence for a correlation between motor skills and cognitive function occurred in younger children. It even went so far as to conclude:

“The results of this review would support the concept that interventions in one domain (motor or cognitive skills) may support development of both motor and cognitive skills, especially in pre-pubertal children.”

Other research has gone one step further to suggest that well-developed motor skills can even be a predictor of future intellectual ability. Researchers like David Grissmer, Sophie Aiyer, William Murrah, Kevin Grimm and Joel Steele analysed data from six data sets and found that fine motor skills were a strong predictor of later achievement. Their study concluded that: “attention, fine motor skills and general knowledge are much stronger overall predictors of later maths, reading and science scores than early maths and reading scores alone.”

Of course, at Islabikes we know better than most people that children develop and progress at a pace unique to each of them. But by encouraging your child to get out on their bike and be active, you may be doing more than just helping them to become fit and healthy. You may be helping them to become a more effective learner, too.

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