Could walking to school reduce childhood obesity?

SEATTLE -- As obesity rates continue to rise in the United States, many experts are looking for new tools to fight this epidemic. But, a Seattle pediatrician is trying a more traditional method to keep children at a healthy weight: walking to school.

Forty years ago, nearly half of U.S. children regularly walked or rode their bikes to school, said Dr. Jason Mendoza, a principal investigator in Seattle Children's Hospital's Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development. Back then, obesity was uncommon.

Today, only about 12 percent of kids walk or bike to school while most get a ride from their parents or take the bus. And, Mendoza said and one in three children and adolescents are obese or overweight.

Being overweight puts children at risk for multiple chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and multiple cancers, Mendoza said. Walking or bicycling to and from school can contribute to the 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity health providers recommend to maintain a healthy weight.

"That represents a sizable opportunity for physical activity that is now gone for most children," Mendoza said. "Whether you're at-risk for obesity or not, walking will improve your overall health, and the convenience could make it more effective than other interventions."

With funding from the National Cancer Institute, Mendoza is leading a study at six Seattle schools to determine whether walking or bicycling to school might increase children's physical activity and reduce their risk of obesity.

Up to 180 students from Sanislo, Graham Hill, West Seattle, Emerson, John Muir and Rainier View elementary schools have volunteered for the study.

Mendoza's team measured each child's height and weight at the start of the school year and will compare measurements in the spring. The kids will also wear accelerometers - watch-like devices that measure their physical activity.

Mendoza created walking school bus models at three of the schools in which members of his research team will lead students as they walk to and from school each day. The team will teach the children how to safely navigate streets and traffic and survey the kids and their families to see if their attitudes toward walking to school change.

Results will be compared to participants from the three schools that don't get walking school buses.

Chad Kodama, assistant principal of Graham Hill Elementary, said he believes the structured walking program will help parents deal with some of the steep hills around the school and busy traffic on Rainier Avenue.

"Putting something like this in place where there are different points where kids can meet and come together makes it a more enjoyable experience for kids to walk to school and makes parents feel safer," he said.

Kodama also said walking to school could be a good way for students to start each day.

"For a student who's sluggish in the morning this could jump start their day," he said. "It sets the tone for some kids. It propels them a bit."

Mendoza is also leading a pilot study that investigates the health impacts of "bicycle train" programs where kids are supervised while they bike to school.

With funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 30 children will receive free bikes and safety training from the Cascade Bicycle Club and learn bike maintenance from Bike Works.

Mendoza said he hopes the bicycle train, which will last several weeks, will provide important preliminary data to motivate a larger study - and eventually show whether bicycle trains should be incorporated into public policy and implemented nationwide.

"There isn't one magic solution to childhood obesity," Mendoza said. "It's going to take changes in a bunch of different areas, from how we get to school to how we eat to how we design our cities."

Mendoza said he hopes participants will be more likely to walk or bike to school after the studies ends.

"If this helps kids to be more physically active or reach a healthy body weight, it could convince school districts and other organizations to pay for staff to oversee walking school buses in certain areas," he said. "We're hoping these healthy habits get engrained and become a part of lifestyles moving forward."