Monday, 19 May 2014

Why walk to school?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends young people need at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Physical activity is important for young people to keep healthy. It helps develop strong bones and muscles, maintain a healthy body weight and develop cardiovascular fitness. Regular physical activity has also been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  While there are many physical health benefits of keeping active, physical activity is also associated with positive emotional wellbeing. Research has demonstrated regular physical activity is linked to lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress as well as increased self-esteem. Moreover, research suggests that young people who are physically active are less likely to adopt health risk behaviours such as smoking tobacco and alcohol use. Despite the benefits of physical activity, the findings from the 2010/11 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey indicate the majority of young people in England are not meeting the WHO guidelines1. Click here to see the latest HBSC national report.

Walking to school may be an easy way of integrating physical activity into young people’s lives. As part of National Walking Month, the charity Living Streets is running their annual Walk to School Week campaign from 19th to 23rd May. A number of studies have consistently demonstrated that walking to school can be an effective way of contributing to the recommendations set out by the WHO. A study carried out in England measured the physical activity of 2035 children aged 9 – 10 years; those who walked to school had higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity compared with those who travelled by car2. Like physical activity generally, walking to school has been associated with many positive health outcomes. Lubans and colleagues3 reviewed the literature on active travel to school and health related fitness, and found an association between walking to school and a healthier body composition and cardiorespiratory fitness among young people. Similarly, a recent study4 in Portugal found young people who used active means when travelling to school were more likely to have a healthy waist circumference and cholesterol levels compared with those who used cars or public transport.

The physical health benefits of walking to school are often promoted in the bid to encourage more young people to adopt  active travel methods to  school, however walking to school also has a number of positive effects on young people’s social developmental. Interviews and focus groups with adults and young people have demonstrated walking to school is associated with increased independence and responsibility, social skills and road safety skills5,6.  Children who walked to school demonstrated better spatial awareness and road sense; they were able to draw more detailed maps of their route to school which included pavements and pedestrian crossings6.

While there is no doubting the health and social benefits of walking to school, many children are unable to do so. In fact, active transport such as walking and cycling to school has become less common over recent years. In 1995/97, 53% of primary school children and 42% of secondary school children reported walking to school. By 2012, the numbers had decreased to 47% and 38% respectively. Consequently the number of students travelling to school by car has increased; from 38% to 44% for primary school students and 20% to 26% for secondary school students7. A number of researchers have explored the barriers preventing children and parents from walking to school, including family schedule, distance to school, weather and parental concerns about safety8.

Walking to school is associated with a number of positive physical and health social development outcomes however it is obvious certain barriers do prevent young people from walking to school every day. The Walk Once a Week (WoW) and Park and Stride scheme promoted by Living Streets may be ideal ways of incorporating walking to school into busy lives. Buckley and colleagues9 found active travel awareness days had positive effects on young people’s choice of travel, with parents noticed the awareness days increased their child’s motivation to walk to school. Let’s hope this Walk to School Week can have similar impacts in the UK…fingers crossed the sun keeps shining! 

  1. Brooks, F., Magnusson, J., Klemera, E., Spencer, N. & Morgan, A. (2011). “HBSC England National Report: Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC): World Health Organization collaborative cross national study.”
  2. Owen, C. G., Nightingale, C. M., Rudnicka, A. R., van Sluijs, E. M. F., Ekelund, U. et al. (2012) Travel to school and physical activity levels in 9–10 year-old UK children of different ethnic origin: Child Heart and Health Study in England (CHASE). PLoS ONE, 7(2), e30932
  3. Lubans, D. R., Boreham, C. A., Kelly, P., Foster, C. E. (2001). The relationship between active travel to school and health-related fitness in children and adolescents: a systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(5)
  4.   Pizarro, A. N., Ribeiro, J. C., Marques, E. A., Mota, J. & Santos, M. P. (2013). Is walking to school associated with improved metabolic health? International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(12)
  5. Tooley, R., Bickerstaff, K. & Shaw, S. (nd) Beyond public health: benefits of walking on children’s social development.
  6. Living Streets (2008). Backseat Children: How our Car Dependent Culture Compromises Safety on our Streets.
  7. Department for Transport (2013). Statistical Release - National Travel Survey 2012.
  8.  Stewart, O., Moudon, A. V. & Claybrooke, C. (2012). Common ground: Eight factors that influence walking and biking to school.  Transport Policy, 24, 240-248. 
  9. Buckley, A., Lowry, M. B., Brown, H. & Barton, B. (2013). Evaluating safe routes to school events that designate days for walking and bicycling. Transport Policy, 30, 294-300.

Kayleigh Chester