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Monday, August 16, 2010

Reduce Classroom Stress by Walking to School

...and eliminating parking lots?

A new study finds that walking to school may help kids deal with classroom stress better. Researchers at the University of Buffalo tested a group of 40 kids ages 10 to 14. Half of the kids got to sit in comfy chairs and watch a slide show of suburban scenes (probably not the finale of Ferris Bueller's Day Off) ending with a nice suburban school. The other half watched the same slide show while waking a mile on a treadmill and carrying a book bag loaded to one tenth of each kid's weight.
Sample Stroop test question:
What color are the above letters?
After a 20-minute rest (comparable to the time it takes to go to your locker, chat with friends, then wait while the teacher takes roll and lunch count and figures out why the computer projector isn't working), all of the kids took a Stroop test (see illustration).

The test made everyone's heart rate go up, but the walkers' hearts went just three beats faster per minute, while the sitters' hearts pounded out eleven more beats per minute. The sitters also experienced three times greater rise in systolic blood pressure and reported twice the increase in perceived stress.

The researchers appear not to mention any difference in actual performance. Recalling the maxim of my old chem teacher Jerome Garry—"Stress is good, to a point"—it's possible the stressed commuting kids got great scores on the test. They'll just die of cardiovascular disease sooner.

Believe it or not, this study gets me thinking of the Madison school district's new gym project. What, new gym? You might not realize a new gym is coming, since the superintenedent and local press appear to be trying very hard to underplay the new-gym side of the project and keep our attention focused on all the other renovations that will take place. The last newspaper article on the major school upgrade didn't even mention the new gym, even though the luxurious new atheltic facility will cost more ($8.64 million) than all of the necessary improvements to the long-neglected high school ($7.4 million).

Friends have given me reasonable explanations as to why we can't just fix the high school, why we have to build a new gym right alongside the academic and arts improvements. Maybe I can be persuaded... if we build the new gym and high school improvements right on top of the current parking lot and do not replace the lost spaces. We want our kids to enjoy a comfortable, stress-free educational environment. Let's eliminate their parking spaces so they can all walk to school and lower their stress levels.

Bonus community health idea: Let's see, $8.64 million for a 2500-seat gym... that's about $3500 per seat. Instead, we could buy everyone in Madison a nice $50 armband radio—total cost $325,000—and encourage them to listen to the basketball games on KJAM while taking a walk. Then everyone in Madison would be less stressed, and Lorin Larsen could increase his ad rates!


  1. What if school years were done in trimesters, with a month in-between each one, to facillitate seasonally-rotated careers and encouraged migrations from the brutal frozen winter Plains to accepting southern climates with open enrollments where children can walk safely, play outside year-round, and parents actually model non-couch potato behavior because they wouldn't have to fight the Earth to survive?

  2. Madison is just giving up its decade-plus experiment with trimesters for an even worse block-alteranting-day schedule.

    I'll always remain a supporter of the uninterrupted summer. Three full months, Memorial Day to Labor Day, with no institutionalization, no schedule, nothing but the awesome freedom of having to figure out how to occupy yourself on a hot summer day.

  3. What percentage of your district home schools or goes elsewhere?

  4. Hi, Larry—sorry I took so long! Back in May, I learned that Madison's net loss to open enrollment elsewhere is 33 students, just udner 3% of our school population. I don't have a local home school count handy. Last I heard, South Dakota has a homeschool rate of about 2%. Anyone else have a guesstimate on Madison's home school count?


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