Although it’s not the proverbial 10-mile hike in the snow uphill (both ways), getting to school as part of living in an urban environment gets teens more physically active than traveling to and from school in a suburban setting, according to a study out of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility (CHHM), a Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute centre.
Active transportation such as walking or cycling to school is a great opportunity for kids to engage in routine behaviour and obtain physical activity to meet the 60 minutes per day recommended for health benefits, but in the past 30 to 40 years, North American kids are using active modes much less.
“I wanted to see if how we design our cities influences how kids are travelling to and from school and the amount of physical activity they’re getting from those trips,” explains CHHM project manager and study lead author, Amanda Frazer.
The research team looked at how the youth traveled to school and how the various modes contributed to physical activity and found that:
- Urban teens walked to school more and got more physical activity from the school commute than their suburban-dwelling counterparts
- Among those who walked to school, urban teens got 25% more physical activity
- Urban walkers also had nearly 3x more physical activity from their commute when compared to suburban passive travelers (i.e. car or bus users)
- Urban students who used passive transportation to get to and from school accumulated the same amount of physical activity as the suburban students who walked to school
Even when using passive transportation, teens in the urban environment accumulated twice as much physical activity from school trips than suburban-dwelling teens using passive transportation. Meannig that the increase in passive transportation-related physical activity has to do with mode choice since the urban teens used public transit to get to school while most suburban teens were driven in the family car.
Where feasible, physically active options for school-travel should be promoted, including public transit since every public transit trip begins and ends with a walk.
Frazer’s message to parents: if teens have the opportunity to walk or cycle to school, they should take it. And for teens living farther from school, give public transit a try.
As suburbs throughout Canada continue to grow rapidly, thoughtful city planning and design linking to public transportation can help us stay active. The research findings can help city planners, health practitioners, school boards, etc., keep children and youth active and healthy.
“There are complicated decisions about where we site schools and where to route transit lines to ensure that schools are along transit routes, either in the initial planning, or by retrofit,” says Dr. Megan Winters, CHHM investigator and assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
"Now we know that, for Metro Vancouver at least, travel by transit can really generate physical activity in similar ways to traveling by foot.”