Kids get into gear

The kids ranged across ages and neighborhoods and experience levels — from the already veteran 5-year-old rider who stands on his pedals for extra power up the hills (his parents own a bike shop), to much older kids who are still getting comfortable with the gear and the idea that you can push a bike across rocks and roots and through water without a catastrophe.

What they had in common was this: On a balmy Saturday in October, they were outside on mountain bikes to tackle a few miles of trail around Lake Accotink Park in Fairfax County, Va.

Hardly a revolution. But consider that alongside the regular riders and budding competitive racers who had gathered for National Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day were kids who knew more about navigating traffic on urban streets than crossing suburban streams.

This was only 12-year-old Tiffany Jackson's second time on a trail, where the occasional fox can be seen scampering ahead under the tree canopy, but she pedaled along steadily in the middle of the pack. It's a far cry from her Washington neighborhood, but she'd clearly taken to the thrill of it.

"I like it, and then sometimes it is a bit scary" when the trail gets steep or obstacles emerge, Tiffany said of the bike outings she has begun taking with Trips for Kids.

The nonprofit group, which originated in California but now has affiliates nationwide, has chapters in Washington, Prince George's County, Md., and northern Virginia that sponsor 70 or more mountain bike rides a year for disadvantaged youngsters.

Underwritten by financial support (not to mention bikes) from companies such as REI, Trek and Clif Bar, the effort addresses what I think is one of the more under-publicized aspects of the nation's rising rates of childhood obesity. While the problem is increasing across the entire population — with roughly 15 percent of 6- to 19-year-olds now considered overweight or obese, twice the proportion two decades ago — the numbers are higher and rising faster for children of lower-income families.

The American Academy of Pediatrics includes in its policy statement on the issue a "numerous and complicated" list of reasons for why this is the case, including subtle arguments about food insecurity and whether uncertainty about the future might prompt people to overeat today. Poorer families are less likely to eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and the lack of family dinners in time-strapped households (hardly limited to the poor) makes kids more likely to consume fried foods and sodas.

Those types of dynamics might be hard to change. But both the academy and the American College of Sports Medicine have pinpointed one reason that's a little more direct, and perhaps a little easier to influence at the volunteer level: access to recreation space, equipment and expertise.

If the local park is off-limits because of crime, that keeps kids indoors. If the local ball league can't raise the money or find enough volunteers, that keeps kids indoors. For someone like Tiffany to feel the thrill of a bumpy bike ride, there's gotta be a bike.

"You go over a creek crossing or a log, and they start beaming," said Pat Childers, an Environmental Protection Agency official, who along with his wife started the local group about five years ago. Participants are referred by schools, churches and local charities.

As a fitness issue, it's a two-for-one deal. Not only are the kids getting outside but the adult volunteers are, too — a good argument for getting involved at some level with neighborhood youth sports, or an organization like Trips for Kids or the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.

That's the attitude Jasmine Bull took as she suited up to help lead Saturday's ride. Now 18, she had gone on some rides with the group a few years ago, got hooked on mountain biking and now is volunteering while she attends Northern Virginia Community College.

It helped her when she was growing up in Woodbridge, Va, and she wants to see it keep going, she says.

"It's like being in the big leagues."

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