In a study of fourth-graders at eight elementary schools in the Houston Independent School District, researchers at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine found that students who participated in a Walking School Bus program had increased rates of walking to school and increased daily minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. The report appears in the current issue of Pediatrics.

"In the United States, children are not meeting the minimum goal of one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on most days of the week," said Dr. Jason Mendoza, assistant professor of pediatrics-nutrition at BCM. “One of the ways that has been promising for improving children’s physical activity is getting them to walk or bike to school.”

Fewer children walk to school

According to Mendoza, in the '70s, 42 percent of children in the United States used to walk or bike to school. Data from 2009 shows that this percentage decreased to about 13 percent across the nation.

“The decrease in walking or biking to school occurred in the same time frame as the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States, so it could be a contributing factor to the historically high rates of obesity,” said Mendoza.

Mendoza and colleagues conducted the first group randomized control trial to measure the impact of walking or biking to school through the Walking School Bus program. The program allows children to walk to school as a group led by parents or another adult. Students are picked up in front of their home or at a designated stop, similar to a carpool.

Study focuses on low-income schools

Researchers recruited fourth graders from the eight schools to participate in this program, knowing that their school may or may not be selected for the program. Of the eight schools, four schools were a part of the intervention group that received the program and four schools were a part of the control group.

The schools that took part in the study were low-income schools. The risk for obesity is higher in children from low-income families.

Researchers established a route for the students to get to school and staff members walked the children to and from school for up to five days a week. Children and their parents could choose when they would walk to school.

Baseline data was collected for all students, including socio-demographic information, how far they lived from school and their regular method of transportation to school. Students wore accelerometers, devices similar to pedometers that measure physical activity, for up to seven days.

Researchers collected follow-up data four to five weeks after the program began. At the baseline, 24 percent of children in the intervention group walked or biked to school, whereas 40 percent in the control group walked or biked to school. At the follow-up, researchers found that 54 percent of students in the intervention group walked or biked to school and 32 percent of students in the control group walked or biked to school.

Previous research indicates that active commuting to school naturally declines as the school-year progresses and those in the control group followed this trend.

More activity, safer journey

At baseline, the amount of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was approximately 46 minutes per day in both the intervention and control groups. At follow-up, the amount for the intervention group was approximately 48 minutes, and the amount for the control group was approximately 41 minutes. The seven additional minutes of activity per day in the intervention group helped children fulfill 12 percent of the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity.

“This study shows us that a Walking School Bus program can increase children’s active commuting to school, which has implications for physical activity and injury prevention since walking with an adult decreases children’s risk of pedestrian injury,” said Mendoza.

Researchers will now look at the impact of the Walking School Bus program over a longer period of time and in a larger sample of schools, and will incorporate Body Mass Index (BMI) calculations to measure overweight and obesity. They will also implement a similar “bicycle train” program to measure the effects it has on physical activity in children.

Others who took part in this study include Dr. Kathy Watson, now with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Baranowski, Dr. Theresa Nicklas, Doris Uscanga and Dr. Marcus Hanfling of BCM and the CNRC.

Funding for this study came from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Cancer Institute, the Harris County Hospital District Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.