Want Healthier Students Who Love to Read? Ditch Those Desks for Bikes

The Read and Ride program lets elementary kids cycle with books and magazines.
(Photo: Courtesy of RideandRead.org)
Oct 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

If you’ve ever taken a ride on that health club staple the stationary bike, chances are you took a book or magazine along to peruse while working up a sweat. It turns out students at Ward Elementary School in Winston-Salem, N.C., are doing the same. The school’s pioneering Read and Ride program lets students get exercise while they read.

School counselor Scott Ertl launched the innovative program in 2009. The health-minded educator asked friends and community members to donate their exercise bikes to the project, and the school received enough bikes to fill a whole classroom.

The school shares one cycling room, which teachers are able to reserve for 15-minute intervals. The students simply bring something to read while they’re pedaling away.

At a time when America’s childhood obesity rates are sky-high, incorporating exercise into the school day (kids spend the bulk of their time at school) seems like a no-brainer. It’s also sound educational practice. A 2008 study out of St. Mary’s College of Maryland found that kids who move while they’re learning retain more information. What most of us probably experienced in school—desks lined up in rows, with attentive students facing forward and sitting quietly—doesn’t match up with what we’re programmed to do biologically: move.

Today’s more educationally progressive classroom might have desks in groups, allowing children to chat with their peers during approved collaboration times, but other than brief recess and lunch breaks and physical education (if budget cuts haven’t axed gym class yet), one thing hasn’t changed: The kids are still sitting nearly all day, every day. Or rather, they’re fidgeting and tapping their feet, trying to combat the tediousness of constant sitting.

The program has proved beneficial for kids who used to believe reading was boring or frustrating. It turns out that what the students hated was sitting at a desk.

"Riding exercise bikes makes reading fun for many kids who get frustrated when they read," Ertl told FastCoExist. "They have a way to release that frustration they feel while they ride."

The academic results the program has achieved are impressive. According to the school’s testing data, kids who spent the most time on two wheels reached an average 83 percent proficiency in reading. In comparison, kids who weren’t in the cycling room as frequently averaged 41 percent proficiency.

Ertl said the program has helped kids feel more confident about exercising too. "Many students who are overweight struggle with sports and activities since they don't want to always be last or lose," he said. "On exercise bikes, students are able to pace themselves and exert themselves at their own level—without anyone noticing when they slow down or take a break."

Read and Ride has since expanded to 30 classrooms across the country. The program’s website has tips for how to get students cycling in your town. While recess and daily gym class need to make a comeback, letting kids cycle while they fall in love with literature is a win-win all around.