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Children who actively commute are likely to make it a habit

According to data from the National Household Travel Survey, about 11 percent of American children walk or bike to and from school. Now, a team of researchers from the Arizona State University (ASU) and Rutgers University has found that young children who do this are more likely to continue such heathy habits as they age. Thus, if children are taught early to actively commute, they will often keep doing so later in their educational career.

“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. “When people start walking early, it can have a lasting impact on their health.”

To clarify whether active commuting persists over time, the scientists surveyed parents and caregivers from 587 households about the school travel habits of their children on two different occasions two to four years apart, between 2009 and 2017, in four predominantly low-income cities in New Jersey (Camden, New Brunswick, Newark and Trenton).

The analysis revealed that over three quarters of children who engaged in active commuting at the beginning of the study continued to do so two to four years later, while those who did not perform such activities early on were less likely to start later. 

“Most kids don’t achieve the 60 minutes per day of physical activity that they’re recommended to get,” said study lead author Robin DeWeese, an assistant professor of Health Solutions at ASU. “Active commuting to school is one way to get more of that activity.” To promote such activities, “schools and communities [should] encourage active commuting during early grades as that may yield benefits even for students in higher grades.”

The scientists found that active commuting varied according to demographic features and perceptions of the safety of the neighborhood. Children with at least one parent born outside the U.S. were less likely to actively commute, while children of parents who perceived their neighborhood safe from crime were over 2.5 times more likely to engage in active commuting.

However, the greatest barrier to active commuting appeared to be the distance between home and school, which often increases as children age, because middle and high schools are larger and less prominent than elementary schools. Thus, the likelihood of active commuting tends to decrease in high school.

According to the researchers, smarter urban design, infrastructure improvements, remote drop-offs, or “walking school buses” (groups of students chaperoned by volunteer parents) could encourage children to actively commute from a young age.

“One of the most visited tourist sites in New York City is the High Line, a green walkable space with no cars. We should be doing this type of planning everywhere – especially in school zones,” Tulloch concluded.

The study is published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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