The federal government is spending more than $1.5 million to research how "bicycle trains" and "walking school buses" can help obese children lose weight.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently funding two studies to a researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital, both of which aim to get more children to stop riding the school bus.
Dr. Jason Mendoza has received $405,835 for a pilot study on "bicycle trains," or a group of kids who bike to school with adult chaperons. The project is billed as a "low-cost, practical program to reduce risk of obesity for at-risk children."
The study, which just got underway in two Seattle elementary schools, is focusing on "low-income and ethnic minority children," who are at the highest risk for obesity, according to the grant.
The project first received funding in February 2013, and will continue until next January. Mendoza, a pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is following 80 fourth and fifth graders for the "pilot cluster."
The study’s premise is that there is a correlation between the decline in walking to school and the increase in childhood obesity in recent decades.
"U.S. children's active commuting to school (ACS; walking or cycling to school), previously common (48% in 1969) is now uncommon (13% in 2009)," the grant said. "This decline coincided with the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects low-income and ethnic minority children."
The grant said increasing children’s physical activity is "necessary," and bicycle trains have not yet been tested as a way to achieve that goal.
"The bicycle train is an innovative program in which children cycle to and from school led by adults," the grant said. "Bicycle trains provide another option for [active commuting to school] ACS, especially for children who live too far to walk to school."
The project will look at "barriers/facilitators" to children’s participation in the program, and use GPS data to "identify and measure children's physical activity intensity and duration while cycling." Heart rate data will also be observed.
Mendoza said bicycle trains could help fight obesity and climate change.
"The bicycle train program could be widely used to help students get safely to and from school and provide them with a great opportunity for daily physical activity," he told the Washington Free Beacon in an email. "It may also help cut down on school traffic and vehicle pollution."
"We are especially interested in seeing how this may work in schools that serve substantial numbers of lower income families, to make sure they're included in the Safe Routes to School movement," Mendoza said.
Additionally, Mendoza is also studying "walking school buses," or walking to school in a group with adults.
The walking school bus, which was endorsed by first lady Michelle Obama last year, is also described as an "innovative" way for children to get exercise and learn pedestrian safety.
Observing walking to school is more expensive, as Mendoza has received $1,182,790 for the project thus far. The research will last for five years, beginning in August 2012 through May 2017.
Walking school buses are also being tested on low-income, ethnic minority children, in third through fifth grades. Mendoza is recruiting 770 child and parent duos from 22 elementary schools for the study.
Mendoza is optimistic about both studies, but said walking to school may be more realistic, since America is not like Europe.
"From a practical matter, the walking school bus may be more easily implemented for elementary schoolchildren, since it does not require special equipment, i.e. bikes, helmets, etc.," he told the Free Beacon. "Also, the cycling infrastructure in the U.S. is not necessarily widespread or available to many children going to [and] from school (unlike in Europe and elsewhere)."
"However some communities such as Portland, Ore. and Davis, Calif. are setting great examples for increasing cycling infrastructure," Mendoza said.