Celebrate International Walk to School Day

I recently learned that October 5th, today, is International Walk to School Day. Originated in the UK, the day is now celebrated annually in over 40 countries around the world, including the US.

A day to celebrate walking to school??? When I was a kid that was the only way to get to school. But now, according to the US Walk to School site, only about 10% of US children walk to school on a regular basis. While that may be driven by larger distances between home and school, only 25% of children living within a mile of school walk regularly. I’ve seen that in my own town, where the schools started busing kids within a mile radius of schools last year.

There are several reasons why walking to school – or more walking in general – can be beneficial: everything from air quality and reduced traffic congestion to a greater sense of community. But one of the most pressing reasons has to be the increasing epidemic of obesity in this and most developed countries; a critical issue even among children. Data from Health, United States, 2010 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that rates of obesity in children 6-years and older are approaching 20%. If you break down the statistics further you see rates for some minority children (such as Latino boys and African American girls) at nearly 30%!

Obesity is a potential health issue at any age, but it is particularly concerning among children. Obese children are more likely to become obese adults, and the negative health effects of obesity are thought to increase the longer a person is obese. So we are seeing children with weight issues begin to develop diseases typically only seen in adults, such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the impact of these diseases on their health may be much worse than what we see in individuals who develop these conditions later in life (source: CDC).

In her writings on population health, Pamela Russo MD, MPH – a Senior Program Officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, whose mission is to improve the health and health care of all Americans – cites several factors (many that developed for perfectly rational reasons) that have “conspired” to produce the epidemic of obesity:

  • The higher density of fast food restaurants in low income neighborhoods (which offer high calorie, high fat, low nutrient, super-sized meals at very low prices)
  • The presence of vending machines in schools (selling high calorie soft drinks as a source of needed revenue for the schools)
  • Subsidized school lunches (containing high caloric and fat content)
  • The decrease in physical education classes and near-elimination of recess periods (due to shrinking school budgets and a narrow focus on meeting academic test score requirements)
  • Fewer children and adults walking or bicycling to school or other destinations (due in part to the lack of sidewalks, safe pedestrian crossings, and bicycle lanes)
  • Increased busing of students (due to liability concerns)
  • In urban, low income neighborhoods, few places to play or walk (due to unsafe playgrounds, crime, and violence)
  • A lack of grocery stores with healthy food options, such as fresh fruit and vegetables in many neighborhoods (related to their higher cost and lower profit margins)

As we can see by the bolded items, many of these factors are very much related to the mission of the Walk to School movement, which is to create awareness of the importance of walking and physical activity – and the need for our communities to be walkable. I’m thankful that we live in an area and school district that still supports and promotes lots of childhood activity – including regular gym classes, recess and great local parks. But until recently we had limited sidewalks and bike routes outside our neighborhood – and my son does take the bus every day. Though he would like to walk home from school on occasion, when I’ve tried to arrange it I’ve met some resistance and concern from school organizers, especially since it seems no one else is walking. While safety is important, we may also have to address some new cultural barriers to kids walking.

The US Walk to School website provides information on the benefits of walking and has some great checklists for assessing the “walkability” and “bikeability” of your community – including concrete steps you can take to make improvements. The site also provides ideas and resources for local events you can organize – and an opportunity to register and highlight your efforts – all under the 2011 slogan “Hike it. Bike it. I like it!” Although it’s a little late to organize something for October 5th (I’m planning just to walk to school with my son today), many events are taking place throughout the month of October. Events can be throughout the community – or even just on school grounds.

In addition, through the National Center for Safer Routes to School, which maintains the Walk to School Program (with funding from the US Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), communities can develop strategies for increasing the walkability of their neighborhoods year-round. And they can access grants through the 2005 legislation that created the Federal Safer Routes to School program.

So, there are lots of reasons to get up, and get walking! If you don’t make it this year, be prepared for International Walk to School Day 2012 – scheduled for October 3rd!

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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