Easy Reader Staff

Walking school bus picks up steam in Redondo, as does Blue Zones Project

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Students prepare on board the Walking School Bus. Photo by Eric Garner

Students prepare on board the Walking School Bus. Photo by Eric Garner

They come from all directions, rolling backpacks behind them and clutching books and papers in hand. Despite the early hour, energy is high as a dozen elementary school students wait for the bus on one of their last days of school for the year. As the group grows, so does the chatter and laughter, and even the June gloom can’t block out the unmistakable “summer is almost here” gleam their eyes.

At last, the bus is ready to leave. But there is no key turning in the ignition, no rumbling engine, and no puff of exhaust. Instead, many pairs of little feet move together toward Beryl Heights Elementary School.

This Walking School Bus is one of 13 that meet early in the morning to safely and actively get kids to school. Students who live within one mile of their school meet at a pre-planned location in their neighborhood. Parent volunteers join the group, both to supervise and to share with their kids the benefits of starting the day with physical activity.

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“I think it’s wonderful for their health both physically and emotionally,” said Rebecca Moore, mother of two Beryl Heights students and an active volunteer for the program since January 2012. “They socialize with their friends and get warmed up before having to sit and learn. It makes a big difference.”

The program is just one of many initiatives created by the Blue Zones Project to increase healthy living habits among South Bay residents. The movement began as a result of a National Geographic study of the places in the world where people live the longest and healthiest lives. The lessons learned from the people in these “Blue Zones” are then applied to cities here at home.

A Walking School Bus in action. Photo by Lauren Nakano

A Walking School Bus in action. Photo by Lauren Nakano

In 2010, Beach Cities Health District won a bid over more than 60 cities nationwide to make Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach part of the Blue Zones Project. BCHD Chief Medical Officer Lisa Santora helped to lead the charge. Yesterday, she joined the Beryl Heights students on their walk to school.

“This is the reason we do what we do at the Health District,” Santora said, pointing to a group of kids walking and talking together. “It’s to create environments that help them be healthy socially, emotionally and physically throughout their lifetime.”

In addition to the healthful impact of the physical activity, Santora noted that the social connections made on these brief walks are something that both kids and parents need.

“It’s about being part of a tribe,” Santora said. “Too many people don’t know the other parents from their school, so coming on this walk allows them to connect with people who are sharing the same experience—raising elementary school children.”

Rebecca Moore agrees. In the year and a half since she got involved in the program, she says both she and her kids have made new friends around their neighborhood.

“I finally met my neighbors through the Walking School Bus!” she said, with a laugh. “My kids have made friends we didn’t even know lived close by and now we have play-dates all the time.”

In the 2012-2013 school year, the Walking School Bus produced some impressive numbers. BCHD reports that students at the 13 participating schools have accumulated 28,465,344 steps; burned 385,229 calories; saved 15,000 car trips; and walked 11,808 miles. And they don’t plan to stop there.

Although yesterday was the last Walking School Bus of the school year, the Blue Zones Project keeps marching forward. Last month the BCHD board of directors unanimously approved a $1.1 million budget extension to continue funding the project. Susan Burden, Chief Executive Officer at BCHD, is confident the initiative will continue to improve health in the beach cities.

“We have been able to see measurable results from the first two years of the project to know that what we’re doing is effective in improving community health,” Burden said. “We are looking at numbers for improvement and going ‘We are heading in the right direction, and should keep doing more to get there.’”

Those numbers point to one conclusion – in the three years since The Blue Zones Project began, the beach cities are getting healthier.

In January, data-gathering giant Gallup presented stunning results to the BCHD board. Since the implementation of the Blue Zones Program, the number of obese or overweight adults in the South Bay decreased by 14 percent; people who identify as smokers dropped from 10.6 percent to seven percent; and nearly ten percent more residents reported eating five servings of fruit and vegetables each day and exercising regularly.

In addition, Blue Zones reports that in the beach cities over 40 restaurants have changed their menus to allow patrons to mindlessly choose healthier options; 134 employers adopted policies in their workplaces to make the healthier choice the easy choice; 150 different walking Moais formed to get people walking together regularly; and 466 people have accumulated over 850 volunteering hours since May 2011.

Birney Elementary kids get active before school. Photo by Lauren Nakano

Birney Elementary kids get active before school. Photo by Lauren Nakano

However impressive the results so far, both Santora and Burden know there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“We have about 16,000 people out of about 125,000 residents that have actively engaged in this project,” Santora said. “Our goal is 30,000 because that’s the tipping point. If we can get 25 percent of the population participating, that’s how we know we’ve embedded real change in our community.”

“What’s important for us is to keep adding to community health, which will lead to a greater quality of life for people here,” Burden added. “We have a long way to go and this is going to be a multi-year building process, but we will keep building.”

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