During her time as a coach for the Harvard University cycling team, PreventObesity.net Leader Julie Idlet began to help college students with their diets and eating habits. And in doing research for that goal, she found out that Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity were becoming major problems for children. She wondered, “How could these be problems for children so young?”
Julie started thinking about her own childhood: riding her bike everywhere, working in the garden. “I felt like I’d reached a point in my career where I really wanted to give back and do something. Making a difference in the life of a child felt really important. Having a healthier start to life is something that, to me, clearly equated to a more successful, healthier future,” she said.
Julie started a cycling afterschool program just to see what would happen—and kids loved it. In fact, they loved it so much that it quickly became clear that the idea was so big Julie couldn’t manage it on her own. Now, 11 years later, CYCLE Kids has become a two-year program for fourth and fifth graders that operates in 40 schools across eight states—reaching about 3,000 kids a year.
Participating schools teach the CYCLE Kids curriculum through their physical education classes, though the program is much more than just physical activity. The program builds cardiovascular health and core strength, and the curriculum also includes nutrition education. Soon it will be expanded to include activities like jumping rope during academic classes to keep kids active throughout the day.
When a school purchases the program or receives it through a grant, they receive bikes, helmets, curriculum for the teachers, textbooks for the students, and pre- and post-assessments. The CYCLE Kids team also works closely with teachers to make sure they have the support they need to get started, teach the curriculum and manage the program.
“This program is breaking the cycle of physical inactivity and poor nutrition habits, as well as social isolation and low self-esteem,” Julie said. “When children become physically active, they feel better! When they feel better physically and emotionally, they start making new friends and making better nutrition choices.”
The program also helps raise kids’ confidence levels. Julie has noticed that when a child learns how to ride a bike in front of their friends, which “can be scary and overwhelming,” their confidence level skyrockets and they learn that exercise can be fun. “They start to feel like they can do anything,” she said.
Julie tells two stories that show how much of an impact this program can make in kids’ lives. The first is about a boy who was born and living in a homeless shelter. He was born with Hepatitis C amidst drug and physical abuse. He was not a healthy kid, and did not have a lot of friends. But through the CYCLE Kids program, he made friends when others helped him learn how to ride a bike. Now, he is healthier and happier.
The other story involves a very overweight girl whose father didn’t want her to participate in CYCLE Kids due to fears of her getting hurt. Her classmates, many of whom weren’t considered her friends, went to their teachers and principal and made the case to them that they should talk to the father and allow girl to learn how to ride a bike to help her lose weight and gain confidence.
“Not only is the program giving kids important life skills to be physically active and make good nutrition choices, kids are also growing emotionally. There is a lot of empathy that comes out of the program,” Julie said. “These kids are actually forming friendships with peers that they would not normally be friends with―now they have the opportunity to do that. They are also forming close friendships with the police officers who help teach the program.”
Julie has been gratified to get positive feedback from parents, teachers and administrators as well. One principal reached out to tell Julie that, “In all my years in education, I’ve never seen a program that touches a child so holistically.” And because of the CYCLE Kids program, schools are adding more bike racks because parents are becoming more comfortable with allowing their kids to bike to school. Now that kids are learning how to ride through the CYCLE Kids program, they want to bike to school and feel more confident they can do it.
Julie is excited for the future of CYCLE Kids: She receives requests for programs from all over the country, even internationally. There’s a group of cyclists who raise money so they can donate the program to a school every year. And all of the programs that CYCLE Kids has given to schools over the years are still active.
One of Julie’s greatest motivators is seeing how much the kids love and benefit from the program. One student shared: “What I learned through CYCLE Kids is that exercise is fun. I also learned to believe in myself and have self-confidence!”
For more information or to get involved, please visit the CYCLE Kids website. Or, you can contact Julie through her profile.