Why walking to school is better than driving for your kids
U of T researcher on the importance of fresh air, exercise and a lower risk of accident or injury
With the start of a new school year comes the opportunity to establish new, healthy routines.
But statistics show the vast majority of school-aged kids still aren’t getting enough physical activity – only five per cent of children and youth in Canada between the ages of five and 19 reach the daily minimum of 12,000 steps.
Adding a walk to and from school is a simple way to help reverse this trend, says George Mammen, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
Mammen has worked closely with Professor Guy Faulkner and conducted extensive analysis of active transportation – including his most recent publication, Putting school travel on the map. And Mammen's work on how walking as little as 20 minutes a day can help stave off depression made headlines around world. (Read more about depression and walking.)
Below, Mammen dispels some myths and fears about the walk to school and explains the many advantages of taking the car out of the morning commute.
What are the biggest misconceptions about walking to school?
To be more ‘protective,’ parents often think it is safer to drive their children to school rather than letting them walk. In reality, evidence shows that children are more likely to be harmed in a car accident compared to walking to school.
How do you respond when parents say they are concerned about strangers and traffic?
Research shows that children are at a higher risk of injury when being driven compared to walking to school. I would suggest families get to know their neighbours with children attending the same school and create ‘walking groups’ or ‘walking buddies’. This would help limit parents’ fears around active school travel, create a stronger sense of community and ensure that everyone feels confident about the new routine.
What are the mental health benefits of walking to school?
Children who walk to school have been found to have higher academic performance in terms of attention/alertness, verbal, numeric, and reasoning abilities; higher degree of pleasantness and lower levels of stress during the school day; and higher levels of happiness, excitement and relaxation on the journey to school. Walking to school can further foster personal growth by developing a sense of independent decision making, emotional bonds with peers and the natural environment, and road and traffic safety skills.
What about the physical benefits?
Active travel is one source of physical activity and with more physical activity comes increased metabolism, improved cardiorespiratory fitness, and lower weight and BMI.
Is there an ideal distance children should walk to reap the benefits? Or is there a distance that is too far?
Research has shown that living greater than 1.6 km from school was deemed ‘too far to walk.’ However, it's important to remember that any minute you walk is contributing to the daily guidelines for physical activity in children (i.e., 60 minutes). When walking to and from school, you can accumulate between 15-45 minutes of your daily physical activity.
How is the walk to school linked with other unstructured physical activity, such as riding a bike or playing at the park?
Compared to children who are driven to school, children who walk are found to be more active overall through other physical activity sources such as organized sport and unstructured ‘active play’.
You’ve reviewed research that analyzes the walk to school in various countries and cultures. What are some of the trends you’ve observed?
Over the last five decades, there has been decline in the number of children walking to school in countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Vietnam, Brazil, the UK and US. This is why this research topic is so important – to reverse these trends globally and help increase this very important source of physical activity.
What are some of the real barriers to parents allowing their children to walk to school?
Among the families who live within a ‘walkable’ distance from school, parents typically identify safety and time issues as main barriers. I would suggest that parents let their children walk with friends. I would also advise making small changes to their schedules like heading to bed and waking up a bit earlier than usual to make time for this very important part of their days.