About 80 percent of students who lived within a mile of their school walked or biked to classes every day 50 years ago. Today, that number is down to 15 percent nationally.

Health professionals call that trend alarming, which is why they are teaming up with national health advocates to get local young people up and moving.

But even parents who live close to their children’s schools choose to drive the students to school or put them on the bus rather than letting them walk, due to fears of abduction or other harm. But in a generally safe community, parents should feel free to give their children the independence to take themselves to school, which will benefit both the children and the community as a whole in the long run.

Representatives from the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, based in Washington state, recently visited Indiana and offered ideas on ways communities could encourage more local students to walk or bike to school and to be more active overall.

Robert Ping, technical assistance program manager for the institute, says one way to make the city safer for students to walk to school is to increase the number of them who do just that. Increased walking will lead to increased awareness of walkers, which will inherently cause drivers to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings, especially in school zones.

Peer pressure is the best way to make drivers pay more attention to their surroundings, Ping said. He encourages residents to approach drivers who speed through school zones and inform them of their potentially dangerous actions. That might lead to an angry exchange, he said, but it will also likely cause a driver to think twice before driving dangerously. If that method fails, calling in the help of law enforcement is never a bad idea, Ping said.

But while encouraging others to drive safely and watch out for children is necessary, it is ultimately the responsibility of individuals to make changes in their own lives that will promote physical activity in the lives of children.

Although it is difficult, Ping said, it is necessary to let go of some of the fears that keep parents from allowing their children to walk to school. Giving in to those fears, though well intentioned, can ultimately lead to decreased physical activity, which can hurt a child’s overall health and even hinder their academic performance.

Students who regularly walk to school or participate in other forms of exercise are likely to test one to two grade levels higher than their counterparts who are not as active, some research shows. One study even found that physical activity is better for students’ academic performance than a good breakfast, which has long been cited as an essential part of every school day.

There is no single solution to solving the childhood obesity crisis, and there is no clear-cut path to encouraging students to walk to school. However, children follow the leads of the adults in their lives, so those adults must make an effort to make physical activity a top priority.

At issue

Far fewer students walk to school today compared with previous generations.

Our point

By walking to school, students will get more exercise, be less likely to become obese and in some cases even do better academically.