Driving to School is Ruining Our Students: A Plea for Biking More

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My bike, lonely in the rack. Winter though it seems, the roads were actually very dry and warm this day.

Our country is physically unwell. We don’t move enough, and we sit in chairs too much. Our young people are following in our automated tire-treads to a lower life span than the previous generation. I believe the habits of limited activity are set young and that in addition to less time for unstructured play,  our habit of driving everywhere ( especially to school) is hurting people. Instead of driving to school or work, we should walk and bike. That “we” includes our kids. Stop the car madness. Start fostering healthy activity and independence by moving our own bodies where they need to go.The National Partnership for Safe Routes to School offers many reasons for human-powered travel to school. I will focus on a few. Bike/walk to school to improve academic performance, to boost self-confidence, and save young people’s lives.

Now, in the interest of full-disclosure, I feel that my cycling adventure this summer is one way that I am attempting to combat my own habits of physical inactivity. I am a body at rest, who stays at rest unless I make the (rare) conscious effort to get in motion. I relax by finding stillness, sitting down to read a good book or taking a nap as opposed to those whose bodies are constantly in motion, who rest by getting active. It is not a bad thing to take a moment to sit down, or to find quietude in my body and spirit. But it is also good to get moving.

My first year teaching I made it a priority to walk or bike to school. I lived a little less than a mile from my classroom. I remember one particular day when Winter was starting to kick in. I’d forgotten gloves, and when the snow started to lay down a thick blanket I made an off-hand comment to the effect of how cold my hands would be on the way home.

“Is your car heater broken, Mrs. Warn?” asked a student who overheard me.

“No. I’m walking.”

“You walked here? How far away do you live?”

I shrugged, “About a mile.”

The reaction from my freshman was both endearing and horrifying. “A MILE?!?!?!?!” one yelled. “Are you an Environmentalist, Mrs. Warn?” asked another. They offered to get their parents to drive me home.

Could you imagine riding home with some student’s parents? Yikes. But more to the point, I was as equally horrified at their fear of a mile-long walk as they were that I’d take one. I live in Montana, too. Most of my students are fairly active in sports and outdoor life. But the thought of walking to school, aside from being kind of nerdy, was definitely not on their list of ways to get around. Beyond that, they thought of a mile as being some insurmountable distance. My husband relates this to the use of the mile as a standard fitness test, one which has become a dreaded gym activity.

The average American walks about 5,000 steps a day, or 2.5 miles, which is far less than other countries. The recommendation is that we walk 10,000 steps (5 miles) in order to stay healthy.  Beyond this, I see every day that the long hours of sitting in a desk deeply harm our students’ ability to learn. By lunch time they are fried. And despite a deluge of research and many organizations like the National Education Association strongly suggesting that active students do better academically, we still don’t enable our students to move around.

It’s a frightening problem when I hear students every day complain about the distance of the walk from the parking lot to the school (.2 miles from the middle of the lot). It makes me sad when I try to do physical things in my English class, and students choose to sit on their bums and look at their phones instead. Healthy activity is a habit. The more we do it, the easier it is. So, let’s get young people moving by encouraging them to walk or bike to school.

You wonder, “What about pedestrian accidents? What if I live too far away? But cars are so convenient!” In my next post I will offer some thoughts as to making walking and biking more accessible and some of the extra benefits they can offer. For example, neighbors of my school have cited traffic as a major concern in a string of bad-neighbor behaviors. Perhaps filling the bike racks instead of the parking lots will not only make us healthier and smarter, but will make us better community members as well.

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