As the stats bear out, kids today have become less active, less independent and less healthy. In 1969, nearly 50 percent of all children in the United States (and nearly 90 percent of those within a mile of school) walked or bicycled to school. Today, that number has plummeted to fewer than 15 percent. During the morning commute, driving to school represents 10-14 percent of traffic on the road. Shifting from walking or biking to school to getting a ride contributes to overall trends in rising rates of obesity and weight-related chronic diseases.
Too many Alaska children and youths are above a healthy weight, which places them at risk for weight related disease such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Based on self-reported height and weight, 31 percent of Alaska high school students are classified as either overweight (17 percent) or obese (14 percent) — well above the Healthy Alaskans 2020 targets of 12 percent for overweight and 10 percent for obesity. Seventeen percent of K-to-8th-grade students are overweight and another 18 percent are obese in the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna school districts.
While there is no one single policy, practice or program that will reverse the trend of obesity, 79 percent of Alaska adults believe that schools have some or a lot of responsibility for addressing the issue. Studies show that Safe Routes to School programs are effective at increasing rates of bicycling and walking to school and decreasing injuries.
Safe Routes to School aims to create safe, convenient and fun opportunities for children to bicycle and walk to and from schools. Alaska receives federal funds to support Safe Routes to School, and communities can use funds to construct new bicycle lanes, pathways and sidewalks, and launch Safe Routes to School education, promotion and enforcement campaigns in elementary and middle schools.
At the local level, Safe Routes to School practitioners run education and encouragement programs with families and schools and push for strong municipal and district policies to support safe walking and bicycling.
We've seen that Safe Routes to School works in Alaska. The Alaska Injury Prevention Center received a Safe Routes to School grant to purchase a trailer and 35 bikes to teach bike safety to schools across Anchorage. The goal of the program is to teach students that bikes are more than a toy and can be both transportation and a link to a healthy lifestyle. So far more than 2,000 students have gone through the program. In Naknek, a third-grader's idea parlayed Safe Routes to School funding and other funding to build a 2.3-mile path to connect the school, health clinic, community center and the senior center – complete with play equipment and fitness and activity stations.
While the goal is to reverse the decline in children walking and bicycling to schools while increasing kids' safety and healthy activity, the benefits don't stop at schools. It's not just kids who benefit from these projects, but the whole community where these innovative approaches are taken. AARP's Livable Communities initiative supports the efforts of neighborhoods, towns, cities and rural areas to become great places for people of all ages. Communities should provide safe, walkable streets; age-friendly housing and transportation options; access to needed services; and opportunities for residents of all ages to participate in community life.
As the father of a 9 year old, I strive to live in a community where all kids can safely walk and bike to their school and other destinations. This benefits their health, decreases traffic congestion and makes our state a better place.
And walking and biking are fun! Walk to School Day is October 4. Get ready to be safe and healthy and let your elected officials at all levels know that you support Safe Routes to School and the benefits it brings to all of us.
Steve Cleary is executive director of Alaska Trails, www.alaska-trails.org.
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