Kids with behavioral problems may do better in school when they get to play virtual-reality games on stationary bikes instead of participating in traditional gym class activities, a small study suggests.
At a school for kids with behavior disorders, researchers offered 103 students seven weeks of so-called "cybercycling" during either the fall or spring semester.
Cybercycling involves the use of stationary bikes for vigorous rides. The students started out cycling for just 10 minutes and worked their way up to more than 20 minutes over the course of the program.
When students didn't participate in the twice-weekly games on stationary bikes, they had traditional physical education with a focus on team sports, socialization and building motor skills.
When kids did cybercycling, they were 32 to 51 percent less likely to exhibit poor self-control or receive disciplinary time out of class, the study found.
Improvements were most pronounced on days the kids had gym but persisted throughout the seven-week intervention.
"Many studies have shown that aerobic exercise can help improve mood and behavior," said lead study author April Bowling, a public health researcher at Harvard University in Boston.
"When mood and self-regulation, which is the ability to control behavior, is improved, then children can be more successful in the classroom," Bowling added by email.
While the study didn't examine how or why different approaches to gym class might produce different behavior in school, it's possible the more intense aerobic activity offered by cybercycling produced better behavior and helped improve classroom dynamics throughout the week, Bowling said.
Most of the students were boys, about 12 years old on average.
About 40 percent of the students were diagnosed with autism, 60 percent were diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, 40 percent had anxiety disorders and 30 percent had mood disorders.
Both the number of disciplinary events and the amount of time missed from class due to behavior issues declined meaningfully during weeks kids participated in the cybercycling program, researchers report in Pediatrics.
Beyond its small size and limited number of female participants, another limitation of the study is that results from these students at a therapeutic day school may not apply to kids at traditional public schools, the authors note.
"It is important to see if their results translate into public schools, but as the authors point out, cybercycles are expensive and may be (too expensive) for most schools," said Sara Benjamin Neelon, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Boston who wasn't involved in the study.
It's also possible that the novelty of these particular stationary bikes, which many students wouldn't have tried before, might inspire them to be more active than they would be during gym class games they played many times before, Benjamin Neelon said by email.
"There may be some benefit in this new approach to physical activity that could wear off over time as children get used to the cycling - but only time will tell," she added.
Still, the findings suggest that parents looking to help children manage behavior problems may want to consider working brief bouts of intense exercise into kids' normal routines, Bowling said.
"They should not feel overwhelmed by the expectation that their child can only benefit if they exercise for 30 to 60 minutes, something that is very hard for many of these children and their parents to achieve," Bowling added. "Instead, focus on finding something that your child enjoys and starting off with 10 or 15 minutes at a time; walking the dog, hiking with you, playing active video games, whatever it might be."