Thursday, October 13, 2005

Walking, Wellness and the Environment

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The most basic form of human locomotion, walking, gets so little respect in our culture, I sometimes wonder we don’t just forget how to do it. As a means of getting from one place to another, it’s a last resort. As a form of exercise, it’s at the bottom of the list. But recent and upcoming activities in Champaign-Urbana and on the U of I campus suggest that walking may be poised for a comeback.

Last week six elementary schools—three in Urbana and three in Champaign—marked the second local observance of International Walk to School Day. This event encourages walking to school as a way of promoting children’s health, reducing fuel consumption and air pollution, and emphasizing the need for safe routes for walking and bicycling.

Now these are all fine reasons to walk to school, but they’re a little heavy on virtue. I would emphasize in addition that it is enjoyable for children to walk to school, and a treat for parents who have the opportunity to walk with them.

The walk to and from school is a great time to enjoy listening to kids. They’re not distracted by books or tv or computers or toys. And parents who are walking with them are free to listen instead of focusing on the demands of driving. In the morning you may be reminded of the kinds of things that kids look forward to in a day, whether that’s time to work on a special project in class, free time in P. E., band, or just what’s on the menu for lunch. In the afternoon, you may find out what children have learned in class, but you’re just as likely to hear what was gross, what was funny, who was mean or nice to whom—the kinds of things that really occupy kids.

Walking to school is also a great way to enjoy the natural world, even in a relatively urban setting. After all, any walk can be a nature hike if you approach it as one. Walking to school gives kids a chance to investigate the ants that sometimes pile up around cracks in the sidewalk, it gives them time to wonder why squirrels chase each other the way they do, and it provides excellent opportunities to smash acorns, kick walnuts, or collect buckeyes.

And on top of that, walking to school is good for kids and the environment.

Of course walking also promotes wellness in adults, and beginning today the U of I is hosting a three-day conference for researchers from around the world who study the connections between walking and health.

Conference organizers also hope to engage the community with a number of “legs on” activities. Chief among these is a massive “Walk Toward Wellness” on the main quad at the U of I tomorrow, which will be led by Chancellor Richard Herman and his wife Susan. Registration for the walk will begin at 11, and the walk itself will start after an introduction by interim Provost Jesse Delia at noon.

So, if you can, walk your kids to school tomorrow, or walk on over to the quad at noon.