Kids who walk, skateboard or ride their bikes to school when they are young are more likely to keep it up as they get older, reaping the health benefits, recent research suggests.
“The walk to school is a wonderful moment in the day that provides children a glimpse of living an active lifestyle,” said study co-author David Tulloch, a professor of landscape architecture at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey. “When people start walking early, it can have a lasting impact on their health.”
About 11% of kids in the United States walk or ride their bikes to or from school, according to the National Household Travel Survey. This rate hasn't changed in a decade.
In the study, the researchers found that kids are much more likely to continue "active commuting" (traveling by foot, bike or even skateboard) if they are taught to do it when they are young.
To see if active commuting stays the same over time, the researchers asked parents and caregivers about their kids' school travel habits twice — two to four years apart — between 2009 and 2017. The families lived in Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Trenton, which are mostly low-income cities in New Jersey.
Tulloch and his team figured out how far away the school was and took note of the surrounding area.
The investigators found that more than 75% of kids who did active commuting at the study's start still did it two to four years later. And few who hadn't done it before started active commuting when researchers followed up.
Those who biked, walked or skateboarded to school at the outset were seven times more likely to do so two to four years later, the study found.
“Most kids don't achieve the 60 minutes per day of physical activity that they're recommended to get,” said lead author Robin DeWeese, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University. “Active commuting to school is one way to get more of that activity.”
To increase active commuting, DeWeese suggests schools and communities encourage it in the early grades because it may continue to help students later on.
Commuting methods varied by demographic characteristics and perceptions of the neighborhood. Kids whose parents were born outside the United States were less likely to walk or bike to school than those of U.S.-born parents. And kids whose parents considered their neighborhood safe were more than 2.5 times as likely to walk or bike to school.
Distance between home and school had the largest and most consistent effect on the commute, Tulloch said. The distance to school often increases as kids get older and the likelihood of active commuting drops once they reach high school age.
Smarter urban design can help reverse this trend, Tulloch said. Remote drop-offs and “walking school buses” (groups of students chaperoned by volunteer parents) can encourage children to actively commute at a young age. Tulloch added that infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks and tree-lined streets, can make walking more pleasant.
“One of the most visited tourist sites in New York City is the High Line, a green walkable space with no cars,” Tulloch said in a university news release. “We should be doing this type of planning everywhere -- especially in school zones.”
The findings were published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more stats on physical activity behavior in children.
SOURCE: Rutgers University, news release, Sept. 6, 2022