Walking to school: Steps toward health

'Walking school bus' is one way to build healthy activity into Baltimore schoolchildren's daily routine

October 04, 2011|By Keshia Pollack and Alicia Samuels

On Wednesday, Baltimore schoolchildren will join students from around the world by participating in International Walk to School Day. Now in its 15th year, this global initiative aims not only to help keep students healthy but also to improve air quality (fewer motor vehicles, less pollution) and decrease traffic congestion (nationally, as much as 20 percent to 30 percent of morning traffic is generated by parents driving their children to school).

To many readers, walking to school may not seem like news. If you were born before 1960, almost half of your peers likely walked or biked to school. Currently, however, only 13 percent of children ages 5 to 14 do, meaning the vast majority are missing out on this daily opportunity for physical activity.

The reasons behind this are complicated, but urban planning is one important factor. Many of us now live in communities that were designed for driving at the expense of walking, and the distance from our homes to resources such as shops or schools is prohibitive. (The "neighborhood school" may be quite far from the neighborhood). Indeed, research shows that among children who do not usually walk to school, distance is the most common barrier, followed by traffic danger.

The consequences of this decline are profound. A lack of physical activity plays a leading role in rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems among children, and being able to walk or bicycle to school offers the opportunity to build activity into the daily routine. Kids who walk to/from school each day are more likely to meet their daily recommended level of 60 minutes per day of activity than kids who do not walk to/from school. And over time, walking or biking to school helps children develop an early habit of engaging in physical activity, which can lead to a healthier and more active population.

While distance is the primary factor in many communities across America, the situation in Baltimore is unique. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently surveyed families across Baltimore and found many children felt that their route to/from school was not safe. More alarming, many of the children who reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods were actually more likely to report walking to school (presumably out of necessity).

So, how can we ensure our children are not only able to walk to school but to get there safely? Walking school buses (WSB), a strategy promoted through the Safe Routes to School program, is one promising approach. A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school, or as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers.

The benefits of walking school buses are plentiful. Crime is less likely when more people are outside keeping an eye on their neighborhood. Neighbors have more opportunities to get to know each other and become friends. Evaluations of walking school bus programs in several states across the U.S., including Washington, New Mexico, California and Nebraska, show that WSBs increase physical activity, promote social cohesion and reduce traffic-related injuries.

Starting this fall and throughout the year, the Johns Hopkins researchers will be partnering with the Baltimore City Safe Routes to School Program; an Abell Foundation-funded Baltimore City Public Schools initiative called School Every Day!; and other city agencies and community groups to implement walking school buses in several city schools. Principals in particular have expressed interest in walking school buses, as anecdotal reports indicate they help combat absenteeism and tardiness.

There is reason to feel optimistic about the potential of walking school bus programs in Baltimore. During the Democratic primary, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ran an ad in which she stated: "It won't be easy, but I am determined that every child is able to walk to school in a safe neighborhood, no matter where he or she lives." Additional support from city leaders and community members will be critical to replicating the success of walking school bus programs in Baltimore. By working together, we can ensure Baltimore children are staying active and safe.

Dr. Keshia Pollack is an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Alicia Samuels (alsamuel@jhsph.edu) is the center's director of communications.

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