Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Riding a bike or walking to school leads youth to lifetime of health

Florida Weekly 'Outdoors' column, 8/24/2016

Walking and biking to school instills independence, responsibility and lifelong health.

School is open again so that means it’s also time for me to remind readers about the loss of independence and learned responsibility among students who don’t walk or bike to school or bus stops but are instead chauffeured by parents.

The chaos created around almost every school in our community for those who must or choose to walk or bike to get there is another aspect to consider. And let’s not forget the negative impact the daily invasion all those vehicles has on those who live and work in neighborhoods around schools, whether they are on foot, riding their bikes or driving their cars. But most important is the matter of kids’ health.

A prior column focused on the work being done in our community by Healthy Lee and others to reduce obesity and its associated health problems. It’s pretty obvious that using human power to get to and from school and other destinations and activities would go a long way in that endeavor.

Physical education teachers and school resource officers receive training in bicycle safety education using the school district’s bike trailer.
Physical education teachers and school resource
officers receive training in bicycle safety education
using the school district’s bike trailer.
The relationship over the past four to five decades between the decline in physical activity and increase in overweight and obese young people is hard to dismiss.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and a number of other sources, the obesity rate went from approximately 5 percent in 1980 to almost 30 percent currently. Kids walking or biking to school has a similar but inverse association: a University of North Carolina study found a decline in active transportation to school (i.e. walking or biking) on a national level from 41 percent in 1969 to less than 13 percent in 2006 (Lee County is likely much lower). Of course, the onslaught of fast food and junk food in kids’ diets, as well as an overall reduction in physical activity, are undoubtedly part of the cause. But just as is the case with adults who use active transportation on a regular basis (including walking to transit stops), those who incorporate walking and biking into the way they get around see a major effect on weight and wellness. For kids it’s something that lasts a lifetime: many will struggle with weight their whole lives as well as all the associated chronic health problems, from diabetes to hypertension to heart disease.

If you’re a parent or grandparent with some influence, here are a few things to consider. October 5 is National Walk to School Day so perhaps that’s a day to at least give it a try. But don’t expect that day’s activities to represent reality. It may include police escorts and other assistance that’s not normally the case. But at least it’s an attempt to get kids on their feet. Similarly, National Bike to School Day occurs in May, during National Bike Month. Ask your child’s school administrator if they teach bicycle/ pedestrian safety as part of their physical education curriculum. The Lee County School District has a trailer full of bikes and two Safe Routes to School instructors who work with physical education teachers on a rotating basis.

Another option is to initiate a walking (or biking) school bus on a year-round basis. A walking school bus is simple and fun. One or more parents take responsibility for leading kids to and from school or a bus stop, picking up others along the way. Check to see if your child’s school is willing to assist to get it off the ground, perhaps with the help of the school district’s school resource personnel.

At a recent focus group discussing ways to make our communities more walkable and bikeable, an FGCU student who was born and raised in Lee County provided very telling insight. She said that driving for every trip is so ingrained in those that have lived their whole lives in our suburban sprawl environment that it has come to be the norm. So even when other options exist they are not really considered. Indeed, some FGCU students actually drive from their on-campus dorms to their classes. The only way to avoid this outcome is to make walking and biking a routine part of childhood.

Parents and grandparents can make that happen by being role models, teaching them how to be safe in traffic (remembering that sidewalks are just as much a part of traffic as the travel lanes), and eventually letting them venture out themselves so they learn to be responsible for their own safety and gain independence. Rather than chronic health problems, those are the kind of long-term impacts I’m sure every parent wants for his or her child.¦

- Dan Moser is a long-time bicycle/ pedestrian advocate and traffic safety professional who cycles, runs and walks regularly for transportation, recreation and fitness. Contact him at and 334- 6417.

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