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Mixed transport for school commute a beneficial option - study

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

If the distance from home to school is a bit far for your teenager to walk or bike, but you’re worried about their physical activity levels, a University of Otago study may have the answer.

It turns out adolescents taking the bus or being driven some of the way to school, and walking or cycling the rest, receive the same physical benefits as those who walk or cycle the whole way, and it is particularly true for girls.

Associate Professor Sandra Mandic, of the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, says adolescents are becoming less physically active and spending increasing amounts of time in sedentary activities.

"Active transport - walking or cycling - to and from school is a potential source of regular physical activity in this age group. However, the majority of New Zealand adolescents rely on motorised transport for their journeys to and from school, which further limits their opportunities for physical activity," she says.

Researchers, as part of the Otago-led Built Environment and Active Transport to School (BEATS) Study, had 314 Dunedin teenagers wear activity monitors and report their mode of transport to school for a week.

The findings, just published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, revealed nearly half of teenagers using active transport (alone or in combination with motorised modes), met minimum physical activity recommendations, compared to one-third of those relying on motorised transport only.

The researchers also found the active transport group accumulated more moderate to vigorous physical activity on school days but not weekends, than those who relied on motorised transport; and that there was no difference in moderate to vigorous physical activity levels between the groups in the late afternoon/early evening or on weekends.

"This shows that active transport during school commute times provided an opportunity for adolescents, particularly girls, to accumulate physical activity, even if they combined active and motorised transport," Associate Professor Mandic says.

The findings are particularly important as distance to school is one of the major determinants of active transport in adolescents, and many New Zealand adolescents live too far from their school to commute solely on foot or by bike.

"Our results have important implications for encouraging active transport even when it is not feasible due to distance, given that distance from home to school likely increases when transitioning from primary to secondary schools, and New Zealand has policies where adolescents do not have to enrol in the closest school," she says.

Adolescents travelling to school in private vehicles should consider different ways to include active transport as a part of their journey. For example, adolescents and their parents could consider drop-off and pick-up points within walking or cycling distance to school rather than at the school gates, or using public transport as an alternative to being driven or driving to school.

In order to support this, Associate Professor Mandic believes safe drop-off and pick up points along a safe route for walking and/or cycling to school could be designed; school-based walking or cycling groups could be advocated for; cycling skills training could be offered; and policy makers could focus on promoting the use of public transport to school.

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