Practical Ways to Prevent Obesity

walking school bus

More than one third of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, and more and more families are coming to Dr. Jason Mendoza for advice on how to help their kids lose extra pounds. But obesity treatments can be difficult to complete and are expensive. Mendoza is testing a new approach that tries to prevent obesity using ideas from eras when obesity was uncommon.

“I’m looking at whether getting children to walk or ride their bikes to school can increase children’s physical activity and reduce their risk of obesity,” says Mendoza, a principal investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development and associate professor at the University of Washington.

40 years ago, almost half of U.S. children regularly walked or rode their bikes to school. Today, most kids get driven by their parents or take the school bus. This may help explain why many children don’t come close to getting the 60 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous physical activity that health providers recommend.

With funding from the National Cancer Institute, Mendoza is leading a five-year study that builds on a program called the “walking school bus,” where adults supervise groups of kids as they walk to school. The study’s researchers oversee walking school buses in low-income areas where childhood obesity rates are highest.

“There’s often more single-parent families in schools in low-income areas, and many of the parents work multiple jobs,” Mendoza says. “They may not have time to regularly walk their kids to school.”

Six Seattle schools and up to 100 kids are participating in the study for the 2013–2014 school year. Mendoza’s team will measure the height, weight and waist circumference of each child at the start of the school year. The kids will also wear accelerometers – watch-like devices that measure how much physical activity they obtain.

Three schools will be randomly chosen from a group of six participating schools to get the walking school bus intervention, with Mendoza’s team accompanying groups of kids to and from school. They’ll also teach the children how to safely navigate streets and traffic, take the children’s measurements again at the end of the year and survey the kids and their families to see if their attitudes toward walking to school change. Ideally, participants would become more likely to walk to school after the study ends.

The results will be compared to participants from three schools that don’t get the intervention.

“If this helps kids to be more physically active or reach a healthy body weight, it could convince school districts and other organizations to pay for staff to oversee walking school buses in certain areas,” Mendoza says.  

With funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Mendoza is also leading a pilot study that investigates the health impacts of “bicycle train” programs where kids are supervised while they bike to school. Study participants get free bikes and safety training from the Cascade Bicycle Club and learn bike maintenance from Bike Works. Mendoza hopes the bicycle train, which will last several weeks, will provide important preliminary data to motivate a larger study – and eventually show whether bicycle trains should be incorporated into public policy and implemented nationwide.

“There isn’t one magic solution to childhood obesity,” Mendoza says. “It’s going to take changes in a bunch of different areas, from how we get to school to how we eat to how we design our cities.”