Flickr/PEDS.org

One town is experimenting with a fitness program that encourages students to walk to school

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the county where Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and Hermosa Beach are located.

Three neighboring beach cities in California – Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, and Hermosa Beach – are instituting an innovative wellness program based on active living, complete streets, good nutrition, and just plain fun. At its heart is a "school bus" that kids don’t ride but, instead, carry with them as they walk to school alongside community volunteers.

Madison Park writes on CNN:

At 7:35 a.m. in Southern California, children who've brushed their teeth, combed their hair and stuffed their wheeled backpacks rub their eyes awake and shuffle onto the street. They gather at the intersection of Agnes Road and 35th Street in Manhattan Beach for the school bus. But this school bus doesn't carry the kids. The kids carry it. By its handles, the children hoist a yellow bus-shaped sign that reads, ‘Walking School Bus.’ The other students wave triangular orange flags to warn cars to slow down. They walk along the street and stop at another designated spot to pick up more kids at the "bus stop." Adult supervisors follow them for the half-mile walk to the elementary schools.

What a welcome change from another Orange County city, Laguna Beach, which actively discourages kids from walking to school, placing its schools away from its residents.  (My friend Lee Epstein recently wrote about the problem of siting schools in unwalkable locations.) 

According to a recent survey, 60 percent of Manhattan, Redondo and Hermosa residents are overweight or obese. Forty-six percent report significant stress. I doubt the numbers for Laguna would be very different.

Manhattan, Redondo and Hermosa are among 50 cities nationwide participating in a voluntary program named Vitalty City. The program seeks to implement "small changes that add up, such as bike lanes, better pedestrian access, encouraging personal interactions and walking to school," according to Park. It’s led by the enthusiastic Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones.

Buettner calls parts of the world where people live longer and, he would say, happier, "blue zones." His idea is to take lessons from those cultures – such as more walking, less calorie-laden fast food – and make them accessible to American lifestyles. This is where volunteer walking groups and making streets and sidewalks safer for pedestrians and cyclists come in.

Vitality City was piloted in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a small city of 18,000.  Park’s article continues:

In Albert Lea, they banned junk food snacking in schools, started walking school buses, organized community walking groups and identified the most socially influential people to spread healthy habits. The three-year project ended with an average weight loss of about three pounds, extended life expectancy of three years and a 40 percent drop in health care costs for the city.

There’s more in the article, and it’s also summed up nicely in this video:

This story originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog. Photo courtesy of Flickr user PEDS.org.

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