Children who walk or bike to school at a young age are more likely to continue the habit as they age. This is according to a study co-authored by a Rutgers researcher. The report further suggests that smarter urban design can help encourage ‘active commuting’ and healthier outcomes.
“The walk to school is a wonderful moment in the day that provides children a glimpse of living an active lifestyle,” said David Tulloch. Tulloch is a professor of landscape architecture at Rutgers–New Brunswick and co-author of the study, which was published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.
“When people start walking early, it can have a lasting impact on their health.”
The importance of teaching your kids to walk or ride to school
In the United States, about 11 percent of children walk or bike to or from school, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. This rate hasn’t changed in a decade.
The research team found that if children are taught early to actively commute, walk, or bike to school, they are far more likely to keep doing so later in their educational career.
How the data was collected
To measure whether active commuting persists over time, the researchers surveyed parents and caregivers about the school travel habits of their children on two separate occasions.
This was done two to four years apart (baseline and follow-up) between 2009 and 2017. The areas surveyed were predominantly lower-income New Jersey cities: Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Trenton.
Data from 587 households was collected as part of the New Jersey Child Heath Study, which tracked children 3-15 years of age. The distance to school and other spatial factors were calculated by Tulloch and colleagues at the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers.
What the researchers found
The researchers found that more than three-quarters of children who walk or bike to school, at baseline, continued to do so two to four years later. While few newly took it up by the time of follow-up if they hadn’t done so before.
In fact, children who actively commuted to school at baseline were seven times more likely to actively commute two to four years later compared with children who didn’t actively commute at baseline.
“Most kids don’t achieve the 60 minutes per day of physical activity that they’re recommended to get,” said Robin DeWeese. Weese is an assistant research professor at the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State and the study’s lead author. “Active commuting to school is one way to get more of that activity.”
To promote active commuting, DeWeese suggests “schools and communities encourage children to walk or bike to school during early grades, as that may yield benefits even for students in higher grades.”
A more active life requires safe neighborhoods
The study also showed that active commuting varied by demographic characteristics and perceptions of the neighborhood.
Children with a parent born outside the U.S. had lower odds of active commuting compared with those whose parents were born in the U.S. Meanwhile, children of parents who perceived their neighborhood as safe from crime were more than 2.5 times as likely to engage in active commuting.
Walk around the barriers
The greatest and most persistent barrier was the walking or biking distance between home and school, Tulloch said. Distance to school often increases as children age because middle and high schools are larger and less prominent than elementary schools. As a result, active commuting likelihood tends to decrease once children reach high school.
The need for smarter urban design
Smarter urban design can help reverse this trend, said Tulloch.
“Remote drop-offs and “walking school buses” – that is, groups of students chaperoned by volunteer parents – can encourage children to actively commute at a young age. Infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks and tree-lined streets, can make walking more pleasant,” he added.
“One of the most visited tourist sites in New York City. Called the High Line, a green walkable space with no cars,” Tulloch was quoted by Newswise.
“We should be doing this type of planning everywhere – especially in school zones.”
Greener cities are healthier cities
The bottom line
The study shows that healthy habits developed when children are young will serve them in good stead. Encouraging your kids to walk or bike to school will ensure they grow up healthier.