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Bicycling As Antidote To Childhood Obesity

Julianne Idlet, executive director of CYCLE Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing childhood obesity within low-income communities, explains how bikes can be the key to a healthier lifestyle:

In 2009, Type II diabetes not only dominated the nation's health headlines, but it also affected thousands more children who suffer from childhood obesity. Over the past few decades, we've seen a marked increase in childhood obesity among ethnic minorities and low-income families.

My organization, CYCLE Kids, has been working to change this disturbing trend through our work with inner-city schools in metro Boston and New York City. Our goal: To adapt an activity kids love — cycling — into a curriculum that ingrains within both kids and their families long-term healthy lifestyle habits. The bottom line is, you can talk to kids all day about what it means to eat healthy and exercise, but when you give them an actual opportunity to get on a bike for the first time, they truly listen.

What we're doing seems fairly simple, but its impact is real. Our 10-week curriculum for children in grades 3-6, developed in partnership with Boston University's Sargent College, is used in schools' physical education and after school programs to teach basic bike safety skills and nutrition lessons. Central to everything we do is the bike — it serves as both a reward for the children's attentiveness, as well as the main "vehicle" for teaching the importance of physical activity.

Teachers, local police officers, and volunteers all get involved, taking a hands-on approach to showing kids how to feel confident on a bike and make the right food choices.

Just a few weeks ago, a pilot study released by Sargent College showed us what we're doing right with this curriculum, and what we need to monitor for the program long-term. Fifty-four children from elementary schools in Somerville and Cambridge served as a focus group for the study, completing interviews before and after the CYCLE Kids program about knowledge, attitudes and behaviors related to bicycling, helmet use, physical activity, and healthy eating. The results were encouraging:

--61% of students reported wearing a helmet “always” when riding a bike after completion of the CYCLE Kids program
--The number of students who reported knowledge of how to use hand signals when riding a bike increased from 32% at baseline to 91% after program completion
--More than three-quarters of students reported that they felt confident riding a bike after completing CYCLE Kids
--Interviews revealed that most students were able to name appropriate foods to eat for biking and physical activity

We're constantly making improvements to the program, and the next phase of our work will be integrating new nutrition lessons into the curriculum and building the bridge between CYCLE Kids and the home.

Children in the Sargent College preliminary study identified the importance of parental influence on their lives. And long-term, our hope is that through working with their children, we can educate parents to bring these healthy habits home for good. Research aside, we've found that bikes are so much more than just two wheels on a metal frame. They can become vehicles for change.

This program aired on December 28, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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