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'Walking School Bus' Project Aims to Curb Child Obesity

Seattle Children's Hospital

A generation ago, almost half of all schoolchildren walked or biked to school. That rate now is closer to 13 percent. So here’s the question: What difference does walking to school make on a child’s health?

In hopes of finding answers, researchers at Seattle Children’s Hospital have launched an experimental program called "the walking school bus."

Walking to School

The program involves a team of adults who will escort schoolchildren to and from school every day for the rest of the year.

"We're trying to get kids to walk more so it ups their physical activity," said April Downs, a student at Seattle Pacific University and one of the study's research assistants.

Six Seattle elementary schools are participating in the study funded in part by the National Cancer Institute: Sanislo, Graham Hill, West Seattle, Emerson, John Muir and Rainier View. Three schools will have walking school buses in place while the remaining will not. At the end of the year, all kids will be given a survey to determine whether the walking school bus changed students' attitudes around walking.

After the first year, additional schools will be able to participate in the project, which targets schools in lower-income neighborhoods with higher numbers of minority children who are at higher risk for obesity.

Additional Exercise 

Figuring out how to battle child obesity is what motivates Dr. Jason Mendoza, a pediatrician and researcher with Seattle Children's Research Institute. 

Mendoza says it’s not easy figuring out what works when it comes to getting kids physically active. So he wants to see whether the kids who walk are actually inspired to exercise later on in their day. That physical activity will get measured over two weeks by outfitting each kid with an accelerometer—a type of pedometer that measures all levels of activity.

"It's not just an individual's choices," Mendoza said. "It's the setting in which they live. It's the policies that affect them; it's so many things influencing that outcome."
When Mendoza piloted the study in Houston, he found that kids who walked to school exercised an extra seven to eight minutes more each day.

"Some of their parents in Houston commented that they started walking more because their kids encouraged them to do that," he said.

Mendoza is also planning a “bicycle train” program later this year. Kids will get free bikes, helmets and bike locks, as well as accelerometers.