Rounded as a Buddha's belly and crisscrossed with rugged trails, Storm King Mountain looms over the west bank of the Hudson River like a gatekeeper to highlands beauty. It's a spot for dreamers and poets, hikers and adventurers—and now it is also the birthplace of a uniquely therapeutic summer mountain biking program.
Focused Riding, a two-week program geared toward middle and high schoolers who have an attention deficit disorder or learning disability, is the brainchild of David Mendlewski, director of the academic support program at Storm King School (SKS), an international boarding and day school nestled in the mountain's foothills. Mendlewski, who also coaches a mountain biking team at SKS, had a lightbulb moment two years ago while driving home from a training with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). At the training, he had run into a colleague from another part of the state who enthused about how mountain biking was benefiting his 14-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"He told me how mountain biking had helped his son focus in school and improved his organizational and time management skills—a really big step for him," says Mendlewski. "The idea came to me that I could combine my 20-plus years of working with kids with attention deficit disorders and learning disabilities with my lifelong passion for mountain biking to create a program that could help kids improve their focus in school and prepare for the upcoming school year."
Focused Riding had its first season last summer. Along with rides every day throughout the valley—from Stewart State Forest and Black Rock to Minnewaska State Park and Wyndham Mountain—the group of five kids also took time for yoga and mindfulness techniques, writing and reflection time, and academic and organizational skill-building, including reading under the guidance of an English teacher. The combination of physical and mental stimulation unlocked capabilities in the kids: They became more focused and better able to tackle the challenges in front of them. They also became skilled mountain bikers and had a lot of fun. "The intervention we provide, the mountain biking, seems to have a calming effect," says Mendlewski. "The mind develops clarity as a result of the vigorous exercise, and the kids are not as intense or distracted as they were before. I also see an improvement in their personal engagement and interaction with each other. I'm very encouraged by the results so far."
A Trail to a Brighter Future
Mountain biking might seem like an unusual therapy for attention deficit disorder, especially when it is so easy in our culture to pop pills like Adderall and Ritalin to control its symptoms. Yet it is perhaps because these pills are so ubiquitous—Adderall has black-market popularity as a productivity-booster on college campuses, and can be addictive—that we also need natural, fresh-air alternatives.
About 6.4 million American schoolchildren have a diagnosis of ADHD/ADD, and its symptoms can include difficulty focusing and staying on task, absent-mindedness, irritability, mood swings, impulsivity, lack of restraint, and sometimes aggression. While exercise might not entirely replace pharmaceuticals for everyone, there is a growing body of research to support its effectiveness in relieving the effects of attention deficit disorders, which can impact a person's quality of life, relationships, and ability to succeed in school and beyond.
A 2018 review of 15 different studies found that exercise led to improvements in the attention and social behavior of children with ADHD/ADD, among a slew of other benefits. Experts like John Ratley, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), have been touting the advantages of exercise for ADHD/ADD for decades, and healthcare providers are increasingly recommending physical activity of all kinds to help manage attention deficit disorders.
Though many forms of exercise can calm the nervous system and help focus attention, biking might be particularly effective. An organization called the Specialized Foundation—which uses cycling to help kids achieve academic, health, and social success—sponsored a study in which 47 students, aged 11 to 14, rode bicycles outside for 30 minutes before school over a one-month period. The results showed positively altered brain activity in the kids, increased attention span, and boosted moods. Inspired after he read a 2010 article in Bicycling magazine called "Riding Is My Ritalin," Specialized Foundation CEO Mike Sinyard—who has ADD himself, as does his son—now helps bring cycling programs to schools nationwide through the nonprofit's grant-based Riding for Focus program.