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Taking a healthy step

Walk to School helps promote lifestyle change

How do we make a difference against a daunting problem such as childhood obesity? One step at a time.

I mean that literally: By getting children to walk more, we could address their weight issues and, at the same time, perhaps help them with other problems. That’s why I’m urging everyone to participate in Walk to School Day on Wednesday.

You’ll enjoy it, and you just might put your children on the road to a healthier life.

I’m not suggesting a morning walk, in and of itself, will solve the childhood obesity problem; but more walking and less sitting is indeed part of the solution to this serious epidemic. The time spent walking can demonstrate to children that parents enjoy spending time with them. It may create opportunities to interact with neighbors and build a sense of community. It saves money, conserves resources and contributes to a less polluted environment. It also could let children know that the adults in their lives care enough about the family’s well being to change the daily routine.

Currently, 30 percent of Indiana youth are overweight, and many are classified as obese. One important factor is that children lack good examples of adults leading healthy lifestyles and maintaining healthy weight. Indiana’s overall obesity level is predicted to climb to 56 percent by 2030.

The good news is that a number of Indiana initiatives are targeting this urgent public health problem. I congratulate and encourage efforts such as the Indiana Healthy Weight Initiative and PE-4-Me, a partnership between the IU Department of Pediatrics and Indianapolis Public Schools to improve student wellness and physical education. Still, if we’re to help save our children, changes must become a part of our daily routines.

Experts recommend that children get at least 60 minutes of age-appropriate physical activity on most, and preferably every, day of the week. Most children don’t meet that standard, but more would if we incorporated walking or biking to and from school. And, according to recent studies, those who walk or bike to school benefit from fresh air, time to socialize, stress reduction, relief of ADHD symptoms and increased cognitive and motor functioning. The bottom line: Children who walk to school arrive ready to learn and enjoy a more successful day.

Our legislators and other public officials also have reasons to promote walking and biking to school. A recent study asserted that states could prevent obesity-related diseases and dramatically reduce health care costs if they reduced the average body mass index of their residents by just 5 percent by 2030.

Certainly families face significant challenges walking and biking to school. It takes planning and time. In recent decades, we built neighborhoods without sidewalks, designed streets with room only for automotive traffic and located schools in places that can’t be safely reached on foot or on bikes. As a result, parents driving children to schools make up as much as 30 percent of morning traffic, and the air is fouled by idling cars and buses. Safety concerns, perceived or actual, need to be addressed, especially when children are concerned.

Fortunately, administrators, teachers, parents, planners, engineers and health officials across the state are tackling these issues and finding creative solutions through the Indiana Safe Routes to School Partnership. Many of these organizations offer information about how you can promote safe walking and biking to school, and they can also offer contacts for the resources you might need to join in the Walk to School Day festivities. Over the past six years, the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program has provided 120 funding awards to schools and communities to support more walking and biking.

So how do you get involved? Go to www.walkbiketoschool.org. Find out whether a school near you is registered and plan to participate. You’ll also find everything you need to organize an event, even at the last minute. The simple four-step guide will help you to gather partners, plan the event, register your school’s participation on the website and promote participation to your friends, neighbors and other families at your school.

One day dedicated to walking to school might not seem like much against an overwhelming problem such as childhood obesity. But it is one step in the right direction – a step that could help give your child a better, healthier and happier life.

Dr. Gilbert Liu is a pediatrician and associate professor with the Indiana University School of Medicine. He is active with the Indiana Safe Routes to School Partnership. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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