Few Children Walk or Bike Even Short Distances to School

July 2007 - Nationwide, more than a third of children live within a mile of their schools, yet only half of those students regularly bike or walk to class, a new study concludes.

By taking a bus or car to school, "the majority of young people are missing an opportunity to increase daily physical activity by being active travelers," said Sarah Martin, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study appears online and in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Among those least likely to bike or walk to school are students living in the South and in rural areas. Parents with a college education are also more likely to put the kids in the car or on the bus for short trips than those who have a high school diploma, Martin and fellow researchers found.

The findings offer a surprising bit of news for families with low incomes and less education, which tend to be among the most underserved groups when it comes to health disparities, "since active travel helps children achieve higher levels of physical activity," Martin said of the study run by Program Evaluation Across the Nation Using Technology (PEANUT), a Web-based network of research analysts nationwide.

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The reasons why children in urban areas might walk or ride their bikes to school are complex, the researchers say. For instance, city schools are more likely to be located within residential or mixed-use areas, making it easier to find walking and biking routes.

City dwellers also might not own cars, for reasons of convenience or expense. For the same reason, parents with advanced degrees could be more likely to afford at least one car and might drop off their child as they head to work.

James Sallis, Ph.D., a physical activity researcher at San Diego State University, recently completed his own study of walking to school. He and his colleagues found that suburban parents were more likely to drive their children to school to keep them safe from traffic and other dangers.

"This is ironic, because many families move to the suburbs because they are perceived as safer for kids. Many suburban schools are built on busy, high speed roads to facilitate access by car and those roads also make it unsafe to walk," he said.

Martin and colleagues studied a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 children ages 9 to 15 and their parents. They found that almost 35 percent of these children lived within a mile of their schools. Children ages 11 to 13 were more likely to bike or walk than 9-year-olds, they found.

Martin SL, Lee SM, Lowry R. National prevalence and correlates of walking and bicycling to school. Am J Prev Med 33(2), 2007.

Source: HBNS