Few Canadian kids walk, bike to school

Few children are meeting guidelines for physical activity in Canada, but walking or riding a bicycle, scooter or skateboard to school could help them get closer to those targets, researchers say.

Few children are meeting guidelines for physical activity in Canada, but walking or riding a bicycle, scooter or skateboard to school could help them get closer to those targets, researchers say.

They decided to analyze the characteristics of youngsters making their way to school under their own steam, described as "active transportation" — as opposed to getting a ride or taking a bus — to see what patterns emerged. 
Schools should be located to encourage children and teens to walk or bike, a researcher says. (Dave Chidley/CP)

Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those with a single parent and those with an older sibling were more likely to fall into this category, they discovered.

"We saw the likelihood of using active transportation as they age — it peaks at around 10 or 11 and it declines after that," said co-author Roman Pabayo, whose study is published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. The estimated proportion of kids using active transportation at age 10 to 11 was just under 35 per cent, the study showed.

As for regional differences, children in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were significantly more likely to use active transportation, Pabayo said.

Meanwhile, children in the Atlantic provinces were less likely to walk or ride bikes to get to school, the study found.

And not surprisingly, urban kids are walkers and bike riders to a greater extent than their counterparts in rural areas, where greater distances make buses, cars and trucks necessary.

"It's important for children to be physically active," says Pabayo, whose research on Canadian youth aged six to 16 comprised his PhD thesis at the Universite de Montreal.

"One of the most potential easy accessible forms of physical activity is active transportation, and active transportation to and from school is a good opportunity for physical activity because … it's easy, affordable and most children could incorporate it into their daily routine."

Pabayo, who was interviewed in Toronto and is heading to Harvard University on a fellowship in September, drew upon data from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, including 7,690 school-age children.

It's somewhat dated, though, as the survey asked these questions starting in 1996 to 1997, and every two years after that to 2001, when the question was dropped from the survey, Pabayo said.

Still, he said other research has indicated that the No. 1 predictor of use for active transportation to school is the distance between home and the school.

Walking safety

He speculated that walking to school declines after age 11 or so because children switch to middle schools that might be at a greater distance from home, and it's no longer feasible to walk. Likewise, high schools could be even farther away from home.

In some California neighbourhoods, he observed that high schools are often built away from residential areas, along highways, because it's cheaper to build there.

The municipality might end up saving money, but it's not as easy for teens to walk to school, and it could be more dangerous if there are major roadways with high volumes of traffic nearby, Pabayo said.

"We have to look at how we zone and how we plan where we put schools, so it's … safer and also more feasible for children and teenagers to walk to school."

Also during the teen years, he said students might have older friends with a driver's licence who will give them a lift.

As for the health benefits of walking, Pabayo said another study published last year that used Quebec data up to 2006 found a relationship between active transportation and weight status.

Children who used active transportation over the course of three years had fewer weight issues, and consistently had a lower body mass index growth curve, he said.