Son of Steve is well into his first month of middle school and all the changes that entails. He’s hit that point where the honeymoon is over. The novelty has worn off, and the reality of earlier mornings, heavier backpack, crazier schedules, and more teachers and classes and assignments to keep track of has set in. He sighed this morning a heavy enervated sigh and said, “I wish Saturday would hurry up and come.” He’s tired. Psychically tired. There’s been a heroic level of adaptation going on, and it’s taken a toll.
The other big change has been a major drop in physical activity. Last year, he walked six tenths of a mile to school and back every day. This year, he rides the bus. It’s taken a measurable toll on physical activity. How measurable? About a 50% drop, as measured by the fitbit he’s been wearing for the last year and a half. In elementary school, he could dependably rack up 12,000-15,000 steps daily, sometimes exceeding 20,000. So far in middle school, he hovers in the 6-7,000 vicinity, rarely topping 10,000. Part of that is the missing walk to school, and another part is the lack of physical activity programmed into the school day: a drop from two to zero recesses, and a drop in the frequency of P.E. classes.
I’ve seen a number of studies surfacing lately that have connected exercise with mood and cognitive abilities. A longitudinal study in Britain found that car commuters who switched to biking, walking, or public transportation tended to improve their moods. Findings were further reinforced by effects of lengthening commutes: an additional 10 minutes of car commuting led to higher levels of anxiety, whereas an additional 10 minutes of commuting by bike, walking, or public transportation led to lower anxiety.
A US study on schoolchildren found that daily after-school exercise (about 4,000 steps in two hours) substantially improved children’s attention and cognitive skills during school, actually doubling some measures over the control group.
So it’s pretty clear he needs to get his activity back up, and barring a sudden revolution in Newton’s top-tier-college focus on academics, that ain’t gonna happen during school hours.
So what about walking? The walk to middle school is twice the distance (1.2 miles) of his elementary school. Though I walked that far in middle school, I started in 7th grade, not 6th. And backpacks just weren’t so overloaded in those days. Also, I don’t relish sending him across the Parker St. bridge over Route 9, new signals notwithstanding. I don’t feel comfortable entrusting his safety to Parker Street’s impatient, distracted, speed-addicted commuters. The only crossing that was close to that perilous in my own middle-school walk (a four-lane arterial) had a police crossing guard, because it was right in front of the school.
What about biking? It’s hazardous: the most direct route involves Parker St. A Brown student on a bike was injured last week on Parker (Bike Newton–and others–are attempting to find out more about the incident). But I’m looking into alternate routes: one possibility is to cross 9 at the signal at Woodcliff Road and take back streets, cutting out most of Parker. So here I am, a big proponent of biking, a bike commuter, and a bike blogger, and even I hesitate to send my child to middle school on a bike. What is wrong with this supposedly sleepy, safe little city? Or, alternatively, what’s wrong with me? (Maybe I know too much?)
This is where the rubber hits the road, isn’t it? This is where I experience the hesitation that most people have had about making a transition from driving to biking: is it safe? And this is when I have to be stern and remind myself: is it safer to lack exercise and activity? Safer to let the mind go soft in a stew of inattention and anxiety? I know my own mood and mental acuity have improved since I started bike commuting a few years ago. Should I really be denying those benefits to my child?
OK. I’ll have to try a test run. Maybe I can bike it with him a few days to see how it goes and see where the trouble spots are. Of course, we’ll soon be cut short by dark mornings and inclement weather. But maybe by then we’ll have braved the route on foot, and he can experience the joys–as I did–of a 1.2 mile walk to middle school in all kinds of weather.