Walking has always been my favorite mode of transportation. Yes, it’s usually the slowest way to get somewhere, averaging fifteen minutes per mile. But it makes me feel clear-headed and invigorated when I get to my destination. Thus I’ve long preferred striding, strolling, or sauntering to driving, riding, and even biking. That’s why I’ve commuted by foot to school and work most of my life, even when I was nine months pregnant.
My kids don’t exactly share my zeal for bipedal locomotion.
“You know, the car is faster,” four-year-old Ira patiently explains as we amble toward his preschool.
“One block, Mom. One block. Then we’ll turn around,” seven-year-old Ezra declares as we maneuver our puppy out the door for an after-school jaunt around the neighborhood.
I’ve never seen research on the topic, but the mental health benefits of walking seem to diminish rapidly when a child is trudging beside you complaining. So I’ve allowed and even encouraged the boys to grab their bikes on walks in the past. Wheels tend to help them move along at a nice pace, and their complaining wanes.
However, this year I’m on a mission to get my kids walking more. I love bikes, but I’m convinced walking, the upright movement that distinguishes us as human, is an under-appreciated key to good health. Moreover, not walking — 35 percent fewer kids walk and bike to school than they did in 1969 — may be causing a lot of problems for our kids (and the rest of us).
Walking is Anti-Sitting
Walking is not as vigorous as running or playing. But it may actually be the moderate intensity of walking that makes it so good for us. Why? It doesn’t tire us out, so we continue to move around for the rest of the day. However, those vigorous bouts of high-intensity movement we usually call “exercise” often encourage us to sit more. In one study, exercisers were 30 percent less active on the days they hit the gym. That’s a problem, because varied all-day movement seems to be the ticket to optimal health.
You’ve probably seen the headlines that sitting too much increases cardiovascular issues, even when people exercise vigorously several times a week. Excessive sitting is bad for kids too. Just three hours of uninterrupted sitting caused the blood vessels of girls, aged nine to 12, to restrict in a study. Unfortunately most kids sit a lot. Worldwide, children sit for about 8.5 hours a day.
What’s the antidote to sitting? Lots of walking. Walking is not only good for our hearts and organs, it’s good for the entire body. Riding a bike gets the blood flowing, however the hips stay flexed, our shoulders hunch forward, and our tails tuck. However, walking, when done in proper alignment, is the opposite of sitting. The movement elongates the spine and tones the pelvic floor. Biomechanist Katy Bowman calls it a “biological imperative,” because we must do a lot of it to maintain a healthy body, especially a healthy skeleton.
Walking Builds Healthy Bones
Experts say childhood is the best time to invest in healthy bones. According to the National Institute of Health, bone mineral density peaks around age 20 for boys and 18 for girls. Healthy bone mineral density both makes kids less at risk for childhood fractures and less likely to experience osteoporosis and fractures later in life. Alarmingly, more kids may have low bone mineral density than in previous eras, according to Orthopedic Surgeon Shevaun Mackie Doyle, perhaps because they get less activity and exposure to sunshine.
Biking gets kids outside, offers cardiovascular benefits, and is great for the environment when it replaces car trips. But it’s not so great for bone health, according to a number of studies. In studies, cyclists, especially those who ride on smooth terrain, have the same or even lower bone density than sedentary control groups. (Swimmers also have similar bone density to sedentary people, likely because both groups don’t bear their own weight while they’re moving.)
Walking not only builds healthy bones, it encourages kids to run, jump, skip, gallop, tromp, and tree-climb, all of which are superb bone builders.
Walking Improves Quality of Life
Walking isn’t just important for our bodies. It boosts mental health. It helps people attune to the environment, rather than their worries, and has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and improve memory. Walking to school helps kids focus for the rest of the day and has been shown to reduce the need for kids to take ADHD medication, according to a British study.
Daily walks also boost immunity, decreasing people’s chance of getting a cold by as much as 30 percent. That may be especially alluring to parents as we enter another cold and flu season.
Maybe you’re already convinced about walking’s superhero qualities? Warning: your kids may not be. Mine complain walking is boring and say it makes their legs tired. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to make it more palatable.
How to Help Kids Love Walking
“You know, Mom, that was sort of fun,” Ezra remarked the other day after a one-and-a-half-mile walk to a school-related meeting. This walk is straight uphill, and a few months ago, he would have balked at the idea of it. So it was an exciting moment for me. However, getting him to this point required some effort on my part. The following tactics have made walking more fun for my kids and may help your kids enjoy walking more too.
- Go Somewhere Fun
Whether it’s a playground or a birthday party, having a destination gets kids moving. One popular hike in our area is a winding uphill trek, but every kid I know hustles to the top. Why? There’s a swing up there.
- Walk to School or on Errands
Walking is best when it’s used as a mode of transportation. That way, it becomes a seamless part of life, and kids and adults alike are less likely to think of it as optional “exercise.” Let’s face it, exercise is too often an activity we don’t enjoy that encourages more sedentary behavior for the rest of the day. It’s better to make walking routine.
- Bring a Friend
Nothing seems to gets a kid moving like another kid. The instant a friend joins us, complaining vanishes as the kids race each other to the end of the block and scramble up trees.
- Play games
A game of Red Light, Green Light or Follow the Leader is a sure way to get kids excited about a walk. We’ve invented our own walking game called Force Fields. Basically there are imaginary “force fields” we can fall into in as we walk, and someone has to rescue us with an imaginary rope or magic dust. The game relieves my kids’ fatigue and boredom quickly, and they have a great time thinking up variations, such as “whirlwind force fields” and “quicksand force fields.”
- Expect to Carry Little Ones Sometimes
Little legs tire faster than ours, so our littlest kiddos will probably need to be carried sometimes. It may be tempting to bring along a stroller or backpack, and I do when we’re going a long way, but these tools can encourage more sitting than walking. So on shorter walks I leave them at home and expect to carry my four-year-old occasionally. Here’s what I’ve learned. When I resist carrying him, everyone is miserable. When I happily let him climb up on my back, he’s usually back on his feet and running around within a block or two. And the good news is, carrying little ones is something we’re built to do, and it makes our bones and bodies strong. Think of it as strength training with built in hugs.
Many adults are looking for ways to feel better, relieve musculoskeletal pain, and connect with our kids. At the same time, we’re worried that our kids get sick too much, spend too much time on the couch with electronics, or have trouble focusing at school. The solution to all of those problems and so many more is free and accessible to nearly everyone. Walk!
Do you walk with your kids? Have you found ways to make it enjoyable for them? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.