All aboard! Bike train research tackles childhood obesity

SEATTLE -- A researcher from Seattle Children's Hospital might have found a simple way to cut childhood obesity rates while strengthening neighborhood ties.

Dr. Jason Mendoza noticed a dramatic drop in the number of kids who ride their bikes to school. Now he hopes to change the trend by encouraging kids to hop aboard the bike train.

We caught up with the bike train in a Hillman City park. One of the adult leaders was calling out instructions, saying, "Okay you guys, we're taking a new route this morning," and with calls of "let's do this!"

Everyday, rain or shine, dozens of kids board the bike train. The pack of two wheeling fourth and fifth graders are peddling to MLK Elementary with safety minded chaperones. There's always an adult in the front, middle and back of the train calling and echoing instructions like, "looking left, looking right, looking left, going forward."

Fourth grade twins Marcela and Fabianna are part of the bike train.

"When they come to pick us up it's very fun," Marcella said.

"You get to school a bit faster and you do more exercise," sister Fabianna added.

The girls' aunt, Nadia Herrarte, says they wait by the door, anxious for the bike train to take them to school.

"It has been a huge change because now they work out a lot," she said. "They are biking to school and they come home biking so they are well wore off when they come home. Their biking skills are better. Now they know the signs. They have more safety skills."

Dr. Mendoza got National Institutes of Health funding for the study after noting a correlation between the epidemic rise in childhood obesity and a decline in bike riding.

"About a generation ago, around 1969-1970, almost half of children in the United States walked or biked regularly to school," he said. "And more recently in the statistics from 2009, only about 13 percent walk or bike to school regularly."

Through the research project, 40 kids get bikes and safety equipment. They agree to wear activity trackers, a GPS and heart rate monitors. Their statistics will be compared to other children volunteers who aren't part of a bike train.

There's one side effect that won't show up in the data, but it's clear for the kids.

"There's this community that they have now that they didn't have before," bike train leader and researcher Maya Jacobs said. "They have new friends they didn't have before and they get to hang out together in ways they never have before."

Cascade Bicycle Club and Bike Works are also partners in the project. The bike train research will continue in the next school year with another batch of kids.

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