Free Range Children

Wisdom and Wishes About Walking to School

Another solution to obesity popped up in the headlines today. “Student Loses 115 Lbs. by Walking to High School Every Day,” says People magazine. That headline happened to coincide with the release of a new study in BMC Public Health. A press release from the University of Cambridge tells us:

Children who regularly walk or cycle to school are less likely to be overweight or obese than those who travel by car or public transport, a new study suggests.

Such soundbites tell the public daily that this obesity thing isn’t really so complicated after all. This is where we get ideas like this propagating on Twitter:

Stop making it a medical condition. It’s a self-created condition #Period. Stop making it something it’s not! It’s time to be real, game times over, get healthy or suffer the consequences.

Everyone can feel like an expert. It goes with the territory.

An Observational Study

The study from Cambridge is a fine study for what it is. It’s observational. That means the researchers carefully documented a correlation between walking to school and less adiposity. They did a good job of accounting for other factors that might be at work in this relationship. For example, they factored in social and economic status. Also ethnicity and neighborhoods.

But at the end of the day – as the authors themselves note – it’s not a study of cause and effect. It can’t tell us that making kids walk to school will reduce their adiposity. Other factors come into play. And then there’s the question of reverse causality. Does the relationship we’re seeing work in the opposite direction? Perhaps leaner kids are more likely to walk to school. In other words, less adiposity might cause more walking to school.

Making Active Lives Routine

One thing is pretty clear. Transportation and urban planning have taken a lot of routine physical activity out of our lives. As Church and Martin recently described, we’re not lacking in formal bouts of exercise. Gym memberships and recreation time are steady and growing. Instead, it’s the routine physical activity that we’re missing.

Kids no longer walk uphill both to and from school, as their parents claim they once did. In most settings, people move through their lives without any physical effort. Cars, buses, and trains move us around. We stare at computer screens instead of walking about.

So absolutely, it makes sense for kids to walk to school. But communities need to plan for it and commit to making it work. It can bring the benefits of a more active life. But it’s hardly guaranteed to solve problem of obesity in a single stroke.

And despite the inspiring story from People magazine, it’s not a one-size-fits-all cure for obesity in youth.

Click here for the study, here for the press release, and here for the inspiring anecdote from People.

Free Range Children, photograph © Erin Thomas Wilson / flickr

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May 21, 2019

4 Responses to “Wisdom and Wishes About Walking to School”

  1. May 21, 2019 at 7:18 am, Michelle Vicari said:

    I remember walking the mall in the summer on one of my many getting healthy attempts only to have a group of teenagers make “mooing” sounds as I walked by. I cried and never went back. Stuff like this was harder to deal with in my youth, sadly I think I probably just got used to it, but back then it resulted in acting out and depression, and a vicious cycle of more unhealthy eating and unsafe weight loss efforts.

    I do love walking and think it’s great for many reasons (least of which is weight loss) but this is one of those “results not typical” situations that the MSM create headlines from that fuel the bias and stigma that already exists.

    • May 21, 2019 at 7:28 am, Ted said:

      Thank you for bringing up the hard cold fact of “results not typical,” Michelle. The media present the one in a thousand anecdote as if anyone can do this, when, in fact, almost no one can. Sigh.

      If that were advertising, the FTC would have them in court for false and misleading claims. In an instant.

  2. May 21, 2019 at 11:27 am, Mary-Jo said:

    I do love a happy story and it is true that in places like where I live now, The Netherlands, children cycle and walk to school daily, but this headline and study sounded a lot like my wonderful, well-meaning parents who told me that once I got older and ‘more active’, the weight would melt off me and I would be more ‘normal’. Magical thinking. Childhood obesity is complex and it’s crucial it is addressed more proactively, individually and from a public health perspective. Plus, in many places of the world, safety(from crime and predators), lack of pedestrian spaces (USA!) preclude the easy advice to walk instead of being driven or taking the bus.

    • May 21, 2019 at 12:03 pm, Ted said:

      Excellent perspective, Mary-Jo. Thank you!