Ready for school, 9-year-old Eric Kvam sees a group of walkers approaching and skips toward the street to join them after his mother, Wendy, hugs him goodbye on a frosty fall morning in Columbia, Mo.
"Thank you!" Wendy shouts to Katie Obermarle, 21, who greets Eric as she leads a dozen children on a mile-long jaunt to Fairview Elementary School.
"Kids are naturally inclined to be physically active, so it's ironic that we've created a culture in which only about 10 to 15 percent of our children walk or bike to school, down from 50 percent a generation ago," says Ian Thomas, 49, executive director of Columbia's PedNet Coalition, which launched its walking school bus program in 2003 and supervises 500 children who walk to 11 schools.
"We've created a car culture that boxes children in, even though kids are very open to the idea of walking or biking to school," Thomas says. "Elementary school kids in particular just love it!"
From growing concerns about obesity and chronic illnesses to rising gasoline prices, the reasons to walk more and ride less are becoming too clear to ignore, says Dr. Bob Sallis, a family physician and sports medicine expert at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center in Fontana, Calif.
And getting started is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, says Sallis, 52, who advises his patients to walk 30 minutes a day.
"The magic is in its simplicity. Exercise is the best medication there is, and physical activity as simple as walking can have a profound effect," says Sallis, citing significant improvements for patients struggling with diabetes, heart disease, asthma and depression.
LINK: How to Walk Your Way to Fitness
Walking to school is an ideal way to build physical activity into the daily routines of children, who should engage in 60 minutes of exercise at least four days a week, according to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. In addition, scientific studies show that physically active children perform better academically, and educators report that regular exercise can reduce behavioral problems.
Even so, since the 1970s, U.S. students increasingly have ridden to school in cars or on buses because of factors that include traffic and crime concerns, lack of sidewalks, and working parents unable to supervise walks.
In Columbia, home to three universities, most of the city's walking school buses are chaperoned by college students who receive class credit for volunteering.
"If this had been available when I was their age, I would have loved it," says Lynne Eggimann, 21, a University of Missouri health sciences major, who escorts students to school four days a week.
During their walks, Eggimann hears chatter about everything from pet crabs and favorite teachers to birthday parties and school crushes. "These kids love to talk," she says with a smile. "They have to sit still pretty much all day at school, and I think this wakes them up!"
For logging miles on foot, the children earn prizes such as pencils, erasers and shoelaces. More importantly, they build muscles, get their hearts pumping, and "get the wiggles out" before the school bell rings.
"I just like to get up and exercise," says Eric, striding with his classmates to school.
Fitness, fun and friendship
At Iverson Mall, an indoor shopping center in Hillcrest Heights, Md., people dressed in comfy sweats and sneakers arrive three mornings a week in their quest for fitness.
"Five laps inside equals a mile, and I try to walk at least three miles whenever I go," says Walter Kerry, 64, of nearby Washington, D.C.
After retiring in 2010, Kerry joined the Iverson Mall Walkers, a group of spunky seniors who walk for an hour before stores open to shoppers.
"When you walk in a mall with other walkers, it's safe and secure and you don't have to worry about the weather," Kerry says.
Mall managers welcomed walkers beginning in 1989 as a public health service to local residents, who also enjoy access to weekly blood pressure screenings and prizes for reaching mileage milestones.
Many malls across America provide similar programs to allow greater public use of their facilities. Most participants are retired people, but parents with strollers and home-schooled children join in, too.
Gloria Dock, of Temper Hills, Md., became an Iverson Mall Walker after retiring in 1994, and she has walked more than 2,000 miles, in addition to building friendships with other health-conscious walkers.
"My blood pressure is down, my weight is down, and my blood values are better," says Dock, now the group's volunteer director. "It's all because I'm walking. My doctor is so pleased. He tells me to keep it up!"
Setting the pace
Joyce O'Rear, 70, loves being fit and active, but never cared for competitive sports, making her decision to join a walking club a natural choice after retiring and moving in 2002 to Fredericksburg, Texas (pop. 24,286).
Today, she is president of the Fredericksburg Volkssport Club, one of more than 300 active American Volkssport Association (AVA) clubs across the nation. The clubs offer noncompetitive walks, hikes, bike rides, swims and, in some regions, cross-country skiing, but the walking events–called volkswalking or volksmarching–draw the largest crowds.
"Even though volkssporting is really popular, most people still don't know about it," O'Rear says. "But among people who do know about it, they're sold."
The clubs sponsor thousands of events each year and map, rate and mark local outdoor walking and hiking routes that generally are 5 kilometers (3.1 miles), 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) or longer. Participants can choose their own pace and often keep records of their mileage.
The tradition began in Germany, where Fredericksburg native Kenn Knopp went on his first volkswalk while visiting relatives in 1976.
"In Germany, almost every town has a club," says Knopp, 77, who started America's first volkssport club in his hometown that same year. The concept quickly spread nationwide, particularly through military service personnel who had been stationed in Germany and were familiar with volkssporting. Today, the AVA is headquartered in Universal City, Texas, near Randolph Air Force Base.
"Walking is fun," says Knopp, who attributes his 60-pound weight loss to walking. "And in this organization, it's really fun because it's about building friendships, too."