We KNEW It! Walking to School Good for Kids’ Hearts

Hi Readers! New research shows, “A Simple Morning Walk to School Could Reduce Stress Reactivity…” well, it’s a really long title (41 words!). But basically,  a new study at the University of Buffalo concluded that walking to school seems to reduce the amount of stress a heart feels a little later, and that’s good because such stress can lead, down the road, to cardiovascular disease.

The study was a small, slightly strange one that compared 20 kids who sat in a chair and saw a slide show of passing suburbia to 20 kids who walked a mile on a treadmill while carrying school backpacks and also seeing the suburban slideshow.

A little while later both groups were given a test. On average, the heart rate among the walkers went up 3 beats per minute, but it went up 11 beats in the ones who were “chauffeured.” The chauffeured kids also exhibited more stress.

Look, I’m not getting all the scientific terminology exactly right — the study also talks about systolic blood pressure, which I’ve never understood — but the point is: Walking to school is good.

Which you knew. And I knew. And walking would be good even if it didn’t do a darn thing for cardiovascular anything. It’s just good to get fresh air, and get to know your neighborhood and have a little unstructured time. But it’s always nice to have a little study to whip out when parents say, “I would NEVER let my child walk to school! It’s too dangerous!”

And heart disease isn’t? — Lenore

18 Responses

  1. This is a great site! I teach music in Manhattan to very young children, often with caregivers in the classes. With regards to physical health, some caregivers actually feed the children before and after the 45 minute class! I guess this is to protect them from ever feeling hungry – or to stuff their little mouths full so they don’t whine or display an “inconvenient” behavior. This is part of what I have read as a trend towards near constant eating, obviously a part of the growing childhood obesity problem. Not heart healthy at all!

    I also teach piano and find some parents are surprised when I insist that the music be played correctly. Of course there are variations in how correct various students can comfortably play (there is talent involved – shh! – that concept is not PC to many people), but there are standards involved. If everyone had no requirements to ever do anything within acceptable standards, the world would be chaos. Pilots would fly where they felt like it, cars would obey traffic signals if it were convenient for them, and babies would go uncared for because their parent did not feel like doing what was necessary for their sustenance and growth. I could go on and on, but I know I don’t need to.

    Watching this is sometimes like being at a three ring circus. Of course there are many parents and caregivers who do none of this, at least being more Free Range in music classes and lessons. To me, being Free Range in any educational endeavor means to accept that the teachers are there to guide students towards gratifying achievements, in spite of the fact that it will contradict a child’s opinion or stretch their abilities even if it is not always easy. I call this being engaged in life!

    The world without (exploring neighborhood or taking the subway) and within (stretching abilities in learning both knowledge and skills) are both fascinating, and I applaud your Free Range ideals. I will read your book!

  2. A while back, I mentioned a post by a woman who had a hissy because her KG child did not qualify for bus services as they lived within 0.5 miles of school. That set off a string of comments, most agreeing that a 5yo is too young to walk to school, but differing on what would be safe.

    There were some parents who actually stated that they would not allow a child to walk to school at ANY age regardless of the distance.

    So yeah, if it weren’t for the general tone of that forum, I should have challenged them regarding the health of children who don’t get to walk every day.

    But, you know they would retort that their kids get plenty of exercise in all the structured activities they attend. Sigh.

    It isn’t fair for me to say too much, since my kids will not have the opportunity to walk to school at least until they are around 10-11. And as a working mom I too have to make up for their structured days by providing chauffered, and often structured, physical activities. But, it’s kinda sad that this is necessary because there is no consideration in city planning for walking to school. Do you think there ever will be a trend in that direction?

  3. When my son was away this summer, he started running in the morning before breakfast. When he came home he actually asked me if it was okay if he walked to school this fall instead of taking the bus because he felt more awake after his morning runs. Actually, to be honest he asked if he could run to school, but I reminded him he’d be carrying a backpack and the whole sweat thing…He’ll be in 10th grade and the walk is only a mile or so. He’ll have to cut through a few backyards to avoid the main road (which is why we’re bussers in the first place) but I’m pretty sure he’ll be safe (sarcasm).

  4. I’m only 25 years old, and I remember that as a grade school age child I walked to the school closest to me, and then took a shuttle bus down the road to my school. Both schools were within a half mile of my mouse, and in fact I could SEE both schools from the entrance from my neighborhood.

    If I missed the shuttle bus, I couldn’t continue walking to my school – I had to wait for a faculty member to have free time to drive me to school. I waiting in the principal’s office until lunchtime one day.

    I know my parents and I thought it was lame at the time – but we never really challenged it. As a parent myself, I hope that I have the gumption to stick up for what I believe in and to work to change policies and how other parents think about things.

  5. Whenever anyone asked us how we got to school, when we were kids, we always said “two feet and a heartbeat”. I loved walking to school. Rain or shine, snow, or tornado like winds. It also helped me in getting amalgamated to walking anywhere and everywhere at an early age. Understanding and learning about my community. What to enjoy and what to avoid and how to avoid it. And like the article says, walking is good for your health, especially if it involved climbing and running along the way. Fun times.

    Off topic; there are times when I wish I could spend a few days as my 7-8 year old self again. Doing all the things I used to do at that age, and that was a lot.

  6. School just started for us here this week and my little one is starting Kindergarten. We walk the half a mile to school and I walk to pick him up!
    It’s a great way to start out the day and he always says “It’s a beautiful day for a walk”…nice to know it’s reducing his stress too!
    Thanks for the article!

  7. My son walks or rides his bike to school and I have noticed that he is less likely to get in trouble. This seems consistent with my experience which is that when I do my 20 minute stationary bike ride right after I wake up I have a more productive day at work.

    Exercise is good. Being stationary is bad. Since they have to sit still at school, balancing that with some kinetic time should be seen as necessary. Not just for health (which should be enough) but for learning as well.

  8. When I was young, my elementary school was literally right across the street from my house. So, yeah, I walked to school. But when I turned twelve, my family and I moved to the suburbs. The school was too far to walk to, but you better believe, rain or shine, my mom made me walk to the bus stop. It was two blocks away – no big whoop – but I know there are plenty of parents who would in no way let their kids walk “that far.”

    My husband walked to school until he was in high school at which point he – gasp! – rode the **city bus** to school.

    Walking to school is still a subject I struggle with. The first school my son will go to houses 4k to 1st grade. It’s about a mile and half from our house, but he has to cross a VERY busy intersection to get there. The next school is about two to three miles away. He will have to cross that same busy intersection and go through an area without sidewalks (a small area). I guess I’ll cross those bridges when I get to them.

    But when he gets to high school? He can either take the bus, buy his own car, or get his lazy butt up early enough to ride his bike.

  9. My older kids, (18 and 16, now) have walked the 2 kilometers to school everyday of their school-lives, (I arranged my work schedule and walked with them until the youngest was in the 3rd grade) . Even in -30 C degree weather in the winter. So will their little brother and sister when they start school.

    Although I’m sure in 40 years time, the story will be how it was uphill both ways! 🙂

  10. I grew up in Warsaw, NY, which is a bit east of Buffalo. All the kids in my neighborhood walked to school (about 1/2 mile each way), even during snow squalls when it was below freezing. Oh, and it was uphill both ways.

  11. Due to budget cuts, all school buses in my district have been cut except for disabled students. The parent parking lot has always been a complete zoo, but I think it’s going to be even worse this year. Thank goodness we’re in easy walking distance, about 1/5 of a mile from the school.

    At that, I know people who live closer to the school who drive there. Ugh!

  12. re Stephanie’s comment
    I found out to my surprise that one of the issues that my local walk safety/safe routes to schools organization focuses on is making those school parking lots safer. Even if 1950s/60s suburban areas, school entrances were not generally designed for that many parents driving kids to school, so the traffic and tempers makes walking less safe for the kids. This whole situation makes it less pleasant to live near schools, as I did in Berkeley. The parent chauffeurs were starting to get on my neighbors’ nerves with their idling cars, yelling, attempts to u-turn, etc. Kind of a strange lesson to teach kids–your right not to walk is greater than that of all the other people in the hood to enjoy their breakfast.
    I walked to first grade (two blocks), second grade (six blocks on hills), up to about a half a mile after that until the end of high school. So, I was lucky my commute formed a natural progression. The thing about the small town where I went to school the longest is that I could walk on the main streets and people driving by would know my dad and me because we had a diner or they knew us from church. It was not as creepy as walking on deserted streets like those in many suburbs.

  13. My 7-year-old walks the 0.7 miles to school and home again here in Melbourne, Australia, 4 days a week. Granted, she doesn’t walk alone; one of my neighbours and I take turns in walking with all the schoolkids in our street (we do two days each). We only do chauffering on the day that my younger children have a place they need to be immediately after school starts, so I drop her off and keep going with them.

    I must say, I totally see the sense of this study. I find the 40-minute walk (20 up to school, 20 back), repeated in the afternoon, enjoyable and good for my own stress levels! Shepherding a little gang of 5 schoolchildren with my own two younger kids is pretty easygoing as they’ve all been encouraged to walk sensibly and have great road safety sense.

    As to why we walk with them, well, the eldest of the schoolkids is only 8 and the youngest 5, so we feel (as a group of parents) that they are a little young on balance to attempt it without an adult – they need to cross two busy roads, one of which is marked by dangerous drivers. When they are a bit older, though, they will probably be walking together (and sans adults).

  14. You won’t believe it – OK, maybe you will – but that onerous thread I keep mentioning about a 5yo walking to school? Someone just revived that thread by posting a recommendation to read Free Range Kids! There’s hope for us yet!

  15. We either walk or take public transportation every day to school and LOVE it. We have been doing this since the kids were 3 and 5, and they are now 9 and 11. This is also with cellos and violins on their backs, or camping gear if there is a class trip. (If they can’t carry it, then they are taking too much is the rationale.) School is about one mile from our house.
    I am so grateful for our morning routine. We eat breakfast together and I usually don’t even have to look at a clock.
    I feel very sorry for the stressed out parents in the minivans.
    Whether or not people can walk to school depends on so many things (traffic, distance, age of child), that I don’t want to get too “judgy” but I would argue that it is not the ball of stress that urban driving seems to be, and people should at least consider it as a pleasant alternative.

  16. My now 17-year-old started her school career in a school un semi-rural Norway. At 6 she had to catch the school bus that stopped almost 1/3 of a mile away from our house (the school was 2.5 miles away). For the first month I walked her there every day, but then she decided I left the house too late, and made scenes every day until I told her, OK, you can walk there by yourself. She loved that freedom and feeling of accomplishment, and became much easier to deal with in the mornings.
    The next year we moved to Italy, and despite living only 250 yards away from the school nobody walked on their own. Sad to say, most kids were even driven 1/4 1/2 3/4 miles to school, making traffic very dense and sometimes dangerous. My daughter was crushed, and hated returning dependent on us. In grade 3 I had to sign a discliamer at the school that I took repsonsibility for whatever happened to my daughter while walking to school and leaving school on her own. She was still the only child allowed to walk home on her when she graduated from Italian elementary school in grade 5.
    However, for all the school’s worry about my daughter’s safety, the only accidents that happened in the 4 years she attended, were in the drive way and parking-lot by the school, where stressed out parents and grandparents dropped off and picked up kids. My daughter, by walking home, avoided the whole parking area and never had a problem.

  17. My mom wanted to know why my son, when he was in elementary school, didn’t walk to school. The school’s about 2 1/2 miles away on a major road with no sidewalks (and plenty of crosses to remember those who have crashed on the windy road that everyone speeds on). If there were sidewalks, it would have been an option; no sidewalks on a major street – no way.

  18. To me, this is pretty obvious. Walking to school is good for kid’s heart. Any sort of physical activity is definitely a good thing, even if it is just walking.

    At the very least, if you’re just keeping fit and healthy by walking, that’s still better than not getting any workout.

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