“On yer bike!” Should we be encouraging kids to walk and cycle to school more?

When I was at school, I would more often than not walk to school with my friends, and frequently see groups of children turning up to school on their bicycles. At school break times, we would tear around the playground, then after school, we would be out again on our bikes, skateboards and roller blades. The fresh air was good, and I felt more focused in the classroom after a good run around outside. However, this picture has been steadily, and worryingly, changing in recent years.

The issue in the context of transport policies

The Department of Transport found that in 1975/76, 61% of all 5-15 year olds walked to and from school, and 11% went by car.

30 years later, walking had declined to 46% among 5-16 year olds while car use had almost trebled to 30%, and the gap is widening. This has resulted in the journey to school becoming a significant contributor to local congestion, particularly during the morning rush hour. As well as leading to delayed journeys and conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles, local congestion contributes to increasing air pollution which can have an adverse effect on health. However, many children live close enough to school to enable them to cycle or walk, but may not be able to do so due to a variety of factors, such as parental anxiety regarding their safety; inadequately designed footways; or lack of secure cycle storage facilities at school. Consequently, a large proportion of able-bodied children are driven to school when alternative sustainable transport methods may be more appropriate.

The issue in the context of education policies

Increasingly, opportunities to undertake physical activity during the school day, such as physical education (PE) lessons or break times, are being limited in favour of increasing classroom-based work in order to achieve educational targets. This lack of school-based physical activity is compounded by the worrying trend that outside of school, children have become increasingly sedentary, participating in activities such as watching television or playing video games rather than more active play. The average child aged 5 to 17 years in the UK does not reach the minimum 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity of physical activity daily, as recommended by the World Health Organisation. This can lead to a significant impact on adult health, and contribute to the existing burden of non- communicable diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

 

In the local authority, Children’s Services have a legal obligation to contribute to healthy travel to school initiatives, including updating and maintaining effective school travel plans, particularly when school expansion projects are being implemented. Public Health England’s recent publication on the link between pupil health and attainment identify that “children and young people who are aerobically fit have higher academic scores”, acknowledging the emerging evidence. Physical activity has also been linked to improved classroom behaviour of pupils, which can positively influence academic attainment. The report identifies how strategies to improve student health and wellbeing align with key areas of the Ofsted inspection framework, and emphasises the importance of a “whole school approach”.

What can we do?

As paediatricians, we can encourage children, young people and their families to walk and cycle to school as part of holistic healthcare. Schools have a responsibility to raise awareness of the benefits of active travel and relevant environmental issues, and new programmes have been brought into use to encourage behaviour changes to more sustainable modes of transport, e.g. Modeshift STARS. The government must provide ways for children to achieve better health through leisure activities and a clean, safe environment, as stated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As health professionals, we can influence government decisions and policies on how best to do this. More cycle lanes, anyone?

 

Further Reading

  1. Department of Transport. National Travel Survey 2006, Table 4.5. London: DfT, 2007.

  2. Cutting carbon, creating growth: Making sustainable local transport happen. Department for Transport, 2011.

  3. Joint Local Transport Plan 2006-2011. West of England partnership. Accessed at: http://www.westofengland.org/transport/joint-local-transport-plan

  4. Global recommendations on physical activity for health. World Health Organisation, 2010.

  5. Home to school travel and transport guidance. Department for Education, July 2014.

  6. The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment. Public Health England, November 2014.

  7. Modeshift STARS: http://www.modeshiftstars.org

  8. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. http://www.unicef.org/crc

Did you like this post?  Check out our article on the childhood obesity: The fight against the fat

Dr Darshana Bhattacharjee