On The Move To A Healthier Life: Walking School Bus Helps Kids Increase Activity Levels

October 4, 2011

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Tomorrow is International Walk to School Day. Do your kids walk to school? Chances are, they don’t. In fact, the percentage of kids who walk to school has decreased from 48% in 1969 to about 13% in 2009.

This is of concern to me as a pediatrician and researcher examining childhood obesity, a condition which can set kids up for a lifetime of increased health problems.

We know that a healthy diet and lots of chances for activity make for healthier kids. Since the decrease in walking to school has correlated with the increase in overweight kids, we set out to see if helping kids get back to walking could in fact increase their activity levels.

In the first randomized control trial of walking/biking to school, we studied an intervention called the Walking School Bus, which is gaining traction nationally. In a Walking School Bus, parents or trusted adults lead a caravan of kids from their homes (or designated “bus” stops) to school. It’s just like a school bus…without the bus, traffic, or pollution. Full results were published in the September issue of Pediatrics.

Importantly, this research took place among kids from predominantly low-income and ethnic minority families, who bear the double-whammy of having higher rates of obesity and being underrepresented in medical studies.

We found encouraging results 4- to 5-weeks after the start of the study, which organized Walking School Buses for 4th-graders from eight low-income Houston elementary schools. At the start, 24% of kids in the intervention group walked or biked to school, increasing to 54% after roughly a month of the Walking School Bus. The control group showed the opposite trend, with 40% walking or biking at the start and 32% doing so at the end.

Compared to a recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, intervention and control kids were active 46 minutes at baseline; however, intervention kids increased to 48 minutes in contrast to control kids who decreased to 41 minutes per day at the end. The 7-minute relative difference represents 12% of the total recommended daily amount of physical activity.

We also found a 36% decrease in kids driven to school in the Walking School Bus group, which means less traffic, less pedestrian danger, and less pollution.

We’re studying similar interventions in a larger sample over a longer period of time, looking at body mass index (BMI) and other outcomes. We also have plans to debut a study of bicycle trains – the two-wheeled version of the walking school bus – in low-income kids, with the goal of letting the kids keep the bikes – and the healthy lifestyle – at the end of the study.

Overall, there are many reasons to encourage physical activity in our youth, and with a few interventions, we may provide the nudge that will lead to a lifetime of healthier living.

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