Looking for a way to get your kid to enjoy broccoli? Julianne Idlet, the founder and executive director of CYCLE Kids, believes that riding a bicycle can change kids' eating habits as well as their lives. Here's her story.
Julianne was a successful marketing executive at a high tech company until 2004. She also coached cycling at Harvard, and rode over 4,000 miles a year. And then she began learning about the skyrocketing rates of Diabetes Type II, cardiovascular disease, and childhood obesity. “That's when I realized that something had to be done.”
Julianne is not the kind of person to sit on the sidelines and watch. She left her successful career and started CYCLE Kids, a Cambridge-based organization that braids her love of biking with her passion for doing good and making a difference. CYCLE Kids works on what Julianne described as “A deceptively simple premise: we use the bike as a lever to get kids happy about exercise, nutrition, and riding a bike.”
CYCLE Kids partners with schools to offer a program for 4th and 6th graders to teach them about bike skills, road safety, nutrition and literacy. Schools that work with CYCLE Kids are provided with bikes and a teaching curriculum designed to improve emotional health and physical well-being. The schools in turn provide teachers, space, the time to run the program, and kids who are eager to bike.
The curriculum for CYCLE Kids was developed in collaboration with a nutritionist from Boston University and through funding from the American Heart Association. According to Julianne, “Our program is based on solid research and we have the data to show that it’s successful. Children who've participated in CYCLE Kids have shown a 70% increase in nutritional literacy. Also, 25% of the students learn to ride for the first time, 90% report using hand signals for the first time, and there’s a significant increase in the number of kids who ride to school.”
CYCLE Kids has been so successful that, according to Julianne, one principal installed extra bike racks in front of the school because so many children were riding to class. “We found that even kids who rode before (taking CYCLE Kids) now report riding more because they have friends to ride with.”
“Now we reach about 1,000 kids a year in programs that are primarily in the Boston area.
Bikes get kids fit and can help beat childhood obesity. The kids tell us that it’s more fun to ride a bike than to play a video-game. They tell us that bikes make them happy. They say that it’s always new when you ride, but when you play a video-game it gets boring.”
All of this sounds great, but does it work? CYCLE Kids has made such a difference that Cambridge and Somerville have both made it a mandatory part of their student curriculum. According to Julianne, “Teachers tell us that kids are more ready to learn after they come back to the classroom from our program.”
So why haven't more schools signed up to work with CYCLE Kids? According to Julianne, “The big obstacle to expanding the program is money. It costs $10,000 to start a program which pays for the bikes, the helmets, the training and the support materials.”
In the long run, that sounds like money well spent. In the short run, that's money that's not so easy to come by these days.
This is why CYCLE Kids is hosting the Breakaway Ride, the group's 2nd annual fundraiser at the DeCordova Museum on Sunday, May 20th. There will be three different rides, from a metric century (62 miles), to a 36-miler and a 5-mile kid ride.
The good news is that it's not too late to sign up and join the fun. Afterward there will be a celebration with music, massages, and food. And if you're lucky, perhaps some broccoli on the side.
Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book “Here For The Ride” will be published later this year.