Walk to school week is getting closer — it’s usually around May — and (no surprise) it encourages schools and their pupils to walk to school more during the week.
Given the various problems we face — children getting too little exercise and increasingly obese, the rise of type two diabetes and the pressure this puts on the NHS, too much traffic on roads and fears of air pollution — it always seems to be a low-key event, and quickly forgotten.
We might get a Press release saying one Biddulph school is taking part and maybe a photo request from somewhere else, but generally it doesn’t seem to make many ripples, and nothing permanent comes of it. (It’s possible schools do something but keep it quiet of course).
It always seems to be one of those examples that highlight the lie of “joined up Government” that politicians are always so keen on.
You’d think that with all the problems caused by inactivity, obesity and traffic jams, getting people out in the fresh air under their own steam would be a top priority for any kind of “joined up” thinking. Instead, everything that’s done seems to make it easier for drivers but no-one else. Witness the letters from Matthias Bunte to this paper: while Cheshire East Council speeds into action with the new Congleton link road, Mr Bunte seems to have to fight for any concession to cycling at all.
This is despite the fact that habits formed in childhood stay with kids — children who walk a lot will always walk a lot, kids who drive half a mile to school will be the ones who drive to the shop at the end of the road for a pint of milk when they’re adults.
Walking to school can also save your life — exercise as a child gives you denser bones, as a friend of this writer discovered: the ability to withstand aggressive treatment for cancer saved her life. “You’re alive today because your mother made you walk to school,” a specialist told her.
There are short-term benefits, too: walking to school is a free way for children to build exercise into their day. Physically active children are more alert, ready to learn and achieve better grades than those who are driven, say the organisers of walk to school week.
As someone who walks to school every day it’s clear why many people don’t walk to school, bad weather and being late for work aside.
Although many drivers are good, some are not. The sight of a parent with small children does not seem to arouse any kind of consideration in some, whether it’s driving too fast along roads where children are present or being impatient when other drivers are kinder — witness the woman driver last week who beeped at a van driver who had consideration for a parent, and the temerity to delay the woman by five seconds. (Hardly anyone cycles to school with the kids in trailers, as you see in Europe — it’s just not safe enough).
Then there are people who park on the pavement. It can be sensible to park a car at least partly on the pavement — some roads were not designed with today’s traffic levels in mind — but there are people who park fully on a footway and block the way for normal pedestrians, never mind a mother with one child in a pushchair and one a scooter.
They ignore parents’ struggles to get past, though they’d probably be out fast enough if a child scratched their illegally parked car with a scooter or bicycle.
All this might seem petty, but as a nation it adds to a harmful effect on children’s health.
The highest prevalence of obesity is seen in the 11 to 15-year-old age group, with up two-fifths of adolescents in recent years classed as obese, presumably that tendency to obesity starting when they were younger.
While the overall annual increase in obesity has apparently decreased latterly, there is still a “significant upward trend” in overweight and obesity rates for 11 to 15-year-olds.
The NHS says the rise in obesity has been brought about by a number of factors, such as easy access to cheap, calorie-rich, foods but including an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
The Government has introduced the sugar tax it’s true, though this just means sugary goods will cost a bit more and, given that it seems to have been a policy introduced as a headline-grabber, it would be a brave person who’d bet that it will actually be implemented or work.
There are no easy solutions and the Government needs to take the lead. (Cheshire East Council is responsible for public health but when we ran a healthy eating campaign with Robbie Brightwell last year, the council didn’t even reply to our email requesting help).
Even though the joined-up thinking suggesting a link between kids not getting enough exercise and the demands on the NHS from obese, unhealthy adults seems to be a simple one, it’s probably too much for politicians.