How times have changed. Nowadays, only one in seven American kids walks or bikes to school at least once a week, according to a new federal government survey released today.
And while the average youngster lives within two miles of school -- a hefty distance -- most of those who live half that far away or closer rarely walk or ride a bike to class, the survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found.
A previous survey revealed that among children living within a mile of school, 31 percent of their trips were made on foot, while a scant 2 percent were made by bike. That's well shy of the government's hope that in 2010, students who live a mile or closer to school will walk there at least half the time.
To be sure, many parents complain that distance, traffic, crime, bad weather and other factors keep their kids from walking or biking to school, the new survey found. And pedestrian and biking injuries are leading causes of death among U.S. children, accounting for 800 fatalities a year, as well as 200 non-fatal injuries, officials say.
"Parents are justified in their concerns," says Dr. Catherine Staunton, a CDC injury expert and co-author of the new survey, the first of its kind to examine these worries. Still, Staunton adds, even without such barriers, most children choose to be driven to school anyway.
On the other hand, the new survey found that almost two-thirds of the 16 percent who didn't face any of these obstacles walked at least once a week, and 21 percent of them biked. Those with no barriers were six times as likely to walk or bike to school as were those with at least one or more, Staunton says.
Walking or biking to school are good ways of reaching the recommended 30 minutes a day of moderately vigorous exercise -- exercise Americans of all ages are loath to perform. This national indolence, combined with greedy appetites, is taking its toll on the country's waistband, and children are not immune. The percentage of children who are now overweight has more than doubled in the past 30 years, officials say.
The national numbers are echoed by a related CDC survey of Georgians from 2000. That report, also released today, showed that about 4 percent of students age 5 to 15 in that state walked to school most days. The rate was better among those living within a mile of campus, 19 percent. But the vast majority either took a school bus or were driven to school by a parent or other adult.
Blacks and older students were more likely to report walking or biking to class than were younger children and those of different races and ethnicities, says Jessica Shisler, a CDC health educator who helped conduct the state survey.
Together, the findings stress the need for communities to create safe walking and biking routes, health officials say.
Possible measures include regulating traffic speed and improving driver visibility in these zones, encouraging "walking school buses" -- on-foot caravans of kids shepherded by adults -- and even relocating schools to denser areas.
The CDC four years ago implemented the KidsWalk-to-School program, which has since been incorporated by many states, Shisler says. Every state participates in the International Walk to School Day, which this year falls on Oct. 2.
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