Rhinelander school students part of global event
Jack Frost may be making his way to the Northwoods a little bit early this year, but it is still too early to stow away the bicycles for winter. For students of the Rhinelander School District, October 8 is Walk or Bike to School Day. A part of a global initiative, International Walk or Bike to School Day recently caught the attention of the Oneida County Health Department, and they hope to see Rhinelander students getting active by finding a healthier way to arrive at school Wednesday morning.
Walk to School Day began in the United States in 1997 as a way of promoting walkable cities and the creation of safe pedestrian walking routes. The hope was to increase healthier, more active lifestyles among residents who are able to leave their cars in the garage for their daily commute. In the past seventeen years the celebration has spread to most states and forty countries across every continent.
Since the initiative’s inception its goals have evolved. In addition to promoting more connected communities, Walk or Bike says that celebrating non-automotive means of transport can improve infrastructure, cut down on roadway congestion, save money, and lead to children developing healthier habits. On top of it all, they say, they unfading sense of adventure that accompanies the independence of biking to school is plain ol’ fun!
This is just another in a series of programs initiated by the Oneida County Health Department in an attempt to get students active. In 2012 Northwoods LEAN was developed by the health departments of Oneida and Vilas Counties. LEAN, which stands for Linking Education, Activity, and Nutrition, was created to address the problem of chronic disease in the area and the management thereof. Following a bike rodeo last May, the hope is that Walk or Bike to School Day will be another successful method for encouraging children in the area to learn healthy and active habits for life.
Community Health Specialist Maria Skubal said that many counties in southern Wisconsin already participate in Walk or Bike to School Day, and she is excited to introduce the program to the Northwoods. “We want to encourage students to participate in any form of physical activity,” Skuball explained.
Perhaps expanding programs such as this one that encourage active, healthy lifestyles in children throughout the state is a step in the right direction for Wisconsin. Ranked in the top one-third of states in terms of obesity rate, the number of obese adults in the state has doubled since 1990. Twenty-five percent of high school students in the state are obese, as is closer to one-in-three children under the age of five. Nationally, it is likely despite medical advancements that this will be the first generation of Americans with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
It is a step in the right direction, but a young program nonetheless. Skubal acknowledges that the program faces some unique challenges here in the Northwoods. It is the Oneida Health Department’s pilot project with Walk or Bike, so it has not yet been implemented throughout the entire county. There is also the issue of geography—Rhinelander is a very rural area. Says Skubal, “a lot of kids who may want to bike or walk simply can’t because of the distance.” Still, the hope is that in the near future the program will expand and reach beyond the Rhinelander School District.
Currently on the table for consideration is the construction of more biking and walking trails in Oneida County. Along with LEAN, the Chamber of Commerce, and other partners, the Health Department is looking at a grant that would fund trails connecting with Three Eagle Trail and the Bearskin Trail, as well building as other trails within the county. According to Health Department Director Linda Conlon, Oneida County has an obvious deficiency of trails. “Especially looking at surrounding areas,” she continued, “we really don’t have a lot of that accessible to us.” This project is yet another example of how Oneida County is attacking inactivity.
The big picture idea is to make a more walkable county, the benefits of which, says Conlon, are not limited to the improved health of individuals. “When you have a bikeable and walkable county it promotes health and wellness, but it also decreases congestion, increases tourism, and increases the number of young professionals who will want to relocate here.” It won’t be a walk in the park, but the movement for a healthier, safer Oneida County has a promising start.
On Wednesday, Oct. 8, Rhinelander’s Central School, James Williams Middle School, Rhinelander High School, and Northwoods Community Secondary School will be participating in Walk or Bike to School Day. Volunteers representing LEAN will be at intersections, wearing bright yellow clothing, near those schools to hand out cinch bags featuring LEAN’s logo to all participating students.