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National Bike to School Day Aims to Promote Health, Safer Routes

By guest blogger Gina Cairney

Parents! It's time to pull out those walking shoes from storage and to dust off your kids' bikes (yours, too) because it's May. Also known as the time of horrible allergies, warmer weather, and more importantly, National Bike Month.

Which means the second annual National Bike to School Day is a week away, on May 8.

As part of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, Bike to School Day is an event geared toward community engagement and encourages bicycling (or even walking) to school as a healthy commuting alternative for children and families.

More than 1,200 schools across the U.S. are registered to participate in the event this year, an increase from the 945 that took part in the inagural event last year.

In the ongoing effort to curb childhood obesity and instill healthy habits in young children, biking and walking to school may be the easiest ways to incorporate daily exercise in children's (and adults') lives without it becoming tedious and boring.

The benefits can even be more than just physical.

A Danish study released last year as part of the Mass Experiment 2012 found that children who walked or biked to school performed better on tasks that required concentration like solving puzzles than students who were driven or rode public transit. This effect, the study found, lasted up to four hours after the children arrived at school.

Eating breakfast may help with concentration, but Niels Egelund, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, found that walking and biking to school had a greater effect than diet.

"The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised," he told the Agence France-Presse.

Of course, not all schools are accessible by walking or biking, and even in those urban areas with decent pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, safety may keep parents from allowing children to participate.

But as bicycling becomes more mainstream, and the community becomes more involved with children's health and accessibility to school, safe routes can be established and habits cultivated.

For example, a simple request to add a bicycle rack outside Wolftrap Elementary School in Vienna, Va., has, according to The Washington Post, morphed into a communitywide effort to get more students biking and walking to school.

That one request led a Vienna resident and father of three to establish the Bike Train in 2009, a regularly occurring bike-to-school program now in its fifth year, that herds students on bikes along a safe route.

Texas also has a similar bike train that gets students biking to school instead of riding in a car, the Austin American Statesman reported.

BikeTexas, funded by the state's department of transportation, helps train teachers so they can teach students bicycle-safety tips. Since the program's inception in 2005, the number of students using two wheels and pedal power to get to school has increased, Chris Moore, who oversees Austin's Child Safety Program, told the Austin American.

In Big Bear Lake, a small town about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, a scholarship program was set up to give a limited number of elementary students bikes to get to and from school until they graduate from high school; and in San Ramon, Calif., local contests encourage students to get to school by some alternative method like biking, walking, or even skateboarding rather than riding in a car.

Safety and the lack of a good route to school may discourage some parents from letting their children participate, but the National Center for Safe Routes to School suggests that this may be an opportunity for parents and educators to demand a better, healthier community.

By participating in Bike to School Day, parents can work together and hold on-campus events highlighting the barriers that make bicyling and walking to school difficult, while getting local stakeholders involved in promoting youth health.

So put some air in those tires and get riding! (Don't forget your helmets.)

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