Back to school: What did you do on your summer vacation?

Jane WardThe back to school essay topic “What I did on my summer vacation” is a time worn favorite, particularly for elementary teachers and students.  One day late in August, Grandma asked my niece and nephews, “What was your favorite part of your vacation at the beach last week with your family?” Both of my nephews chose a bike-related activity:  “Riding my bike to the smoothie store by myself with my friend.” was the answer of my 10 year old nephew.  “Riding bikes to the smoothie store with my Dad,” was the response of the 6 year old younger brother.  My niece chose going to the beach with their whole family together.  All of these activities included physically active time together, opportunities to set life-long patterns of active living.

President Obama and the first family cycle together on vacation.  Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

 It is no surprise that the CDC checklist summary, “Making Physical Activity a Part of a Child’s Life,” encourages parents to set a positive example, including leading active family time together, making physical activity fun, and to include walking and cycling as two great family activities.

Why are these examples important to the Safe Routes to School mission?  Physical activity in children is learned by imitation.  Children will often mimic what their parents do as their primary role models.  Further, most children love to be with their parents and share fun times. 

The research bears that out. A review of many different research studies by Edwardson and colleagues (2010) found that parents had an important influence on their children’s overall and leisure-time physical activity due to role modeling, transportation choices and encouragement.  That influence decreased for adolescents, so it is important for parents to start early.

Results from a 2012 Harris poll done on behalf of the travel industry highlight the long lasting impact of family vacation time, finding that family vacations create memories that last for decades and are shared for decades—with parents often modeling their vacations after the types of vacations they had as children.  So including physical activity in your family vacation can influence your children—and eventually their children!

Not all families have the luxury of a summer vacation involving cycling and hiking or going to a beach together.  However, each active walking or biking trip to school—taken with a parent as a role model—can be a fun, active time together involving parents and children that may be remembered for years.  Even if an individual parent can only participate every now and then, and a group of parents rotate the leadership of a walking school bus or a bike train, they can be the parent role models for the entire group of children—helping to share fun times while establishing life-long habits of physical activity! 

Jane Ward, MD, MPH is our research advisor, responsible for updating our research section and blogging on research topics. She completed a career in the US Air Force as a pediatric ophthalmologist with a strong interest in international humanitarian work. Her lifelong interest in fitness and active living led her to pursue a Masters of Public Health with a focus on Physical Activity and the built environment. For her MPH internship in the spring of 2012, she bicycled cross- country advocating and fundraising for Safe Routes to School and the League of American Bicyclists Bike Friendly America programs. She is an Assistant Professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences and retains close ties with the George Washington University Department of Exercise Science. She enjoys bicycling for fun and transportation, triathlons, travel and spending time with family and friends on active vacations.