"An hour a day of walking can help prevent childhood obesity"
Scott Gee, MD

Safer Routes, Healthier Kids

Note: The following article was originally published in the Texas Transportation Researcher, volume 44.4.

A generation ago, the typical morning routine for school-aged children involved eating a hearty breakfast around the table, and then bounding out the door with books in tow to either walk or ride a bike to school. Along the way other children in the neighborhood joined in, transforming the walk into a lively neighborhood promenade. My, how times have changed.

Today, in part because of safety concerns and changes in school locations, most kids are driven to school or ride a bus. This trend has resulted in increased obesity rates, snarled congestion and worsening air quality levels around schools. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is teaming up with the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) to implement more Safe Routes to School (SRTS) programs in Texas schools. SRTS is a national program that encourages and enables more children to safely walk and ride their bicycles to school.

"Forty years ago, about 50 percent of children either walked or rode their bike to school compared to just 15 percent today," says TTI Research Scientist Melissa Walden. "The goal of Safe Routes to School is to reverse this steep decline by helping local communities through outreach and education."

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the costs attributed to obesity for 2001 were estimated at $10.5 billion and are projected to reach $15.6 billion by 2010. Approximately 35 percent of Texas school-age children are overweight or obese.

TTI is assisting TxDOT by developing outreach materials that include an SRTS guidebook designed for concerned parents and school administrators. TTI is also developing and maintaining a website with information on all the available SRTS programs. Working with TxDOT, TTI also coordinated a training course held in Austin last September.

TTI Senior Administrative Coordinator Michelle Hoelscher also coordinates the Texas State Network. The objective of the SRTS State Network is to set goals, share best practices, secure funding and provide educational materials to agencies that implement SRTS programs. Texas is one of 10 states involved with the SRTS state network project.

"The number of overweight children in the United States has tripled in the last 30 years, just as children's activity levels have dropped," says Scott Gee, M.D., prevention and health information medical director for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. "An hour a day of walking can help prevent childhood obesity, and Safe Routes to School has demonstrated success nationally and internationally in creating safe, convenient and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from school."