Parents concerned about their children's weight should think about making bike-riding a part of their child's — and family's — life. Routine bike riding is more effective in controlling weight than other commonly-recommended measures such as improving diet and regular exercise, according to new research.

The study also revealed the abysmal state of nutrition, and exercise habits, and the striking prevalence of overweight children in their study population.

This research comes at a time when childhood overweight and obesity have reached crisis proportions. Over the last twenty years, unhealthful weight gain has escalated dramatically and currently 30% of children are either overweight or obese.

The study data were striking and hold significance beyond proving that bike riding is good for you. The study also revealed the abysmal state of nutrition, and exercise habits, and the striking prevalence of overweight children in their study population.

The researchers gave questionnaires to parent-child pairs who were awaiting care at an urban Baltimore pediatric clinic, or urgent visit center. There were 100 pairs, with children ranging from 8 years to 18 years; the mean age was 11.8. The parent or caregiver answered the questions rather than relying on the children's self report.

Up to half the children did not consume milk, water, fruits or vegetables daily. Seventy-five percent drank juice and 35% drank soda daily. Twenty-one per cent ate fast food several days a week and 32% ate packaged chips daily. Not drinking milk, and not eating vegetables several times a week were strongly positively associated with overweight status.

Ninety percent of the children knew how to ride a bike, 80% owned a bike and 92% of families could identify a safe place to ride near their homes. This is a significant finding because of frequent assumption that urban children have neither the equipment nor the safe venues for outdoor activities. Less than 10% of the children rode their bikes to school and 60% never walked to school. Of the 49 children who rode their bikes regularly, 37% were overweight, while 74% of the 51 children who never rode a bike were overweight. While this supported their hypothesis that bike riding more than once a week was associated with a healthy body weight status, the researchers could not attribute cause and effect. It is possible that overweight children don't ride bikes or participate in physical activities precisely because they are overweight and physical activity is too effortful, too embarrassing, or rarely considered as a pleasurable activity.

Over a third of the children had no regular exercise (defined by the researchers as an activity involving moving for at least 30 minutes) and only 25% walked to school. This reality contrasts meaningfully with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for 60 minutes of daily physical activity for children.

Even though eating better and exercising were also associated with better weight, bike riding more than once a week was more strongly associated with a healthy body weight than other behaviors and dietary practices.

The findings of this study raises concerns about easily children and families fall into the unhealthy habits that have produced the weight gain crisis. The ready availability of fast food and soda, the habitual munching on chips, the excessive opportunities for sedentary activities such as computer games and television, and the limited supervision and influence that parents have over children's diet and activities once they are beyond a certain age all contribute to the problem.

That is why parents must take action. You can choose what goes in the shopping cart and on the dinner table, control over the beverages in the home and the snacking habits, increasing milk fruits and vegetables are all attainable with effort and consistency.

The clear messages from this research is the encouraging difference biking a few times a week can make when it comes to keeping children at a healthy weight. As spring approaches, parents and communities should look for ways to get children off the couch and onto their bikes — don't forget the helmets!