Walking to school in Japan and childhood obesity prevention: new lessons from an old policy
The Urban Health Governance (UHG) team of the WHO Kobe Centre has just published an article in the American Journal of Public Health, on Japan’s “walking to school practice” in relation to childhood obesity prevention. We suggest walking to school as an important element in reducing childhood obesity for lessons useful to other cities and countries.
Active travel to school, such as walking and cycling, has been identified as an important source of physical activity in children. Many developed countries, including some cities, are now promoting walking to school as a way to increase physical activity, aiming to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity. Meanwhile, Japan has exceptionally high rates (98.3%) of active transport to school among children in public school compared with other similar-income countries. Japan has a highly established “walking to school practice” that has been implemented since 1953.
In Japan, each municipality has a board of education in charge of public schools, which considers the geography, climate, and the transport situation to determine the method of commuting. Because there is high availability of schools in urban areas and most are located within walking range of the children's homes, walking is the most common method. There are different safety initiatives depending on the district's characteristics. Parents, school staff, and local volunteers are involved in supervision.
The walk-to-school practice has helped combat childhood obesity by providing regular physical activity. Recommendations to cities promoting walking to school are (1) base interventions on the existing network of schools and adapt the provision to other local organizations, (2) establish safety measures, and (3) respond specifically to local characteristics. Besides the well-established safety interventions, the policy's success may also be associated with Japan's low crime rate.