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Walking School Bus Programs Take Off

Commuting by Foot or Bike Gives Students a Leg Up on Physical Activity, Research Shows
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 22, 2011 -- A walking school bus isn't yellow, burns no gas, and is fueled by human energy. The "wheels" on this "bus" go round and round when small groups of children pedal their bikes or walk to school as adults supervise them along the route.

This people-powered form of transportation has caught on in communities across the country and around the world. According to new research, it's an idea with legs -- plenty of them.

A recent study of the program showed that participating students increased the amount and intensity of their physical activity, a big step toward stemming rising rates of childhood obesity.

The research, which appears online in Pediatrics, followed 149 fourth-graders from eight schools in Houston, over a five-week period. Seventy children were randomly assigned to board the walking school bus while the other 79 students relied on their usual transportation methods to get to class. Unlike previous studies, many of the children were ethnic minorities and came from low-income households.

All the boys and girls involved in the study lived within a mile of school and wore accelerometers, a gadget that measures how much time each child spent being active and the intensity of the activity.

Turning the Tide

In 1969, 42% of children actively commuted to the classroom, but by 2009 that number dropped to 13%. Now, more than 30% of children in this country are overweight and about 17% of them are considered obese.

Researchers found that boys and girls who boarded the walking school bus increased their active commuting time by 30% over the study period, compared to their classmates who did not. They also boosted their minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity while their peers who depended on their usual transportation reduced their time spent exercising at this intensity.

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans encourage children and teens aged 6 to 17 to get at least 60 minutes of activity each day, most of it at moderate to vigorous intensity.

Parents had a 36% reduction in their motor vehicle commuting, which saves time each day and money at the gas tank in addition to improving traffic and air pollution.

"Active commuting could help to broadly improve youth physical activity and prevent chronic disease," the study researchers write.

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