Concerned at the growing ranks of obese children, a sports professor has come up with an unusual solution to prevent tubbiness. In the German town of Paderborn, primary school kids take the "Walking Bus" to class.
Walking to school is good for kids' minds and bodies
Obesity has reached the dimensions of a global epidemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Not only adults are affected; in Germany, 36 percent of seven-year-old boys are significantly overweight as are 30 percent of seven-year-old girls.
The medical effects are alarming: High blood pressure and type-two diabetes are phenomena that people under 40 generally don't have to be concerned about. But ever more children are being diagnosed with these maladies. While kids don't necessarily eat more than they did in the past, what has changed is that nowadays people in the West hardly walk anywhere.
Today's sedentary lifestyles start at a young age. Traffic jams develop in front of primary schools on a regular basis, says Wolf-Dietrich Brettschneider, who lives near one. But there at least, the morning congestion has come to an end. Brettschneider and co-worker Christoph Malek have established the first German "Walking Bus" at the Margarethenschule in Paderborn.
Bus without wheels
Reflective vests ensure that car drivers see the Walking Bus
Each morning, two kilometers (one mile) away from the school, the bus starts up. Students are collected at three bus stops and again dropped off after class. The difference is that this bus is not an actual bus, not a vehicle. The "bus" is a group of walkers. Adult volunteers accompany the children and make sure they make it safely to school. That reassures parents who are used to driving their kids to class -- whether for safety's sake or to save time.
Aside from encouraging mobility, local police traffic safety advisor Norbert Meier is convinced that the Walking Bus has other benefits.
"Children come into contact with the reality of traffic earlier than if they're always put in a car," he said, adding that it helps kids learn independence and traffic safety rules faster.
"Our aim is for children to see movement as a something routine," said head teacher Helga Berling. Her charges are keen on the Walking Bus, too, including many who have to go out of their way to get to one of the bus stops. The route takes them through quiet neighborhood streets where they're exposed to fewer exhaust fumes than on the more main road leading to the school.
"It's that much nicer," said 8-year-old Mara. "Then you can talk longer with your girlfriends."
Kids taking the walking bus are more alert when they get to class
That too is one of the benefits of the Walking Bus. "When kids walk to school they are more relaxed when they arrive in class," explained Brettschneider. "They've talked among themselves and also gotten lots of fresh air. Their ability to concentrate and learn is better."
So far, that seems to be the case. "The children are more awake in any case," said Berlin after having observed the project for several months.
Ideally, the Walking Bus should motivate kids to be more physically active in their free time too. In order to check whether that is the case, Christoph Malek plans to start a study in late November to observe the behavior and concentration levels of Walking Bus participants over a period of months.
Sixty German schools have already contacted Brettschneider's team about the Walking Bus. Three have gotten the idea going so far and five more aim to have it up and running by the end of the year. The idea has also attracted interest from abroad, which is why Brettschneider and Malek will present the Walking Bus project at an international conference on the role of education and sports in Lisbon in mid-November.