City Kids Walk and Bike to School More Often

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Kids who live in the city are more likely to walk or bike to school, compared with children in rural areas, a new study finds. That active commute helps youngsters boost their daily physical activity and may help improve their health.

The study followed more than 7,600 Canadian schoolchildren aged 6 to 16 who participated in the 1996 Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, finding that those who lived in urban settings were 3.7 times more likely than rural kids to walk or bike to school instead of commuting by car, bus or public transportation. That may be because city kids tend to live closer to school than those in rural communities, the researchers said.

The authors, from the University of Montreal, also found that children from low-income families and those who were living with a single parent or with an older sibling were more likely to walk or bike to school than to use less active modes of transportation, perhaps in part because they lacked access to a car or because they were less likely to attend private schools located outside their neighborhoods.

The study also found that active commuting increased after age 6, peaking at around age 10. About 24% of kids walked or biked to school at age 6, while 35% of 10-year-olds did so. But by preteen and teenage years, that rate fell to 15%. That may be because older kids switch to schools that are farther away for middle and high school, making walking or biking impractical.

The research suggests that making an active school commute safe and accessible for kids may help them get more exercise and could provide an affordable and easy way to improve their overall health. Interventions that may help include those that target neighborhood safety, improve neighborhood walkability features (like crosswalks and sidewalks), develop programs that encourage children to travel to school together or fund more schools in more neighborhoods.

As child obesity continues to balloon, augmenting kids’ physical activity is becoming increasingly important. That’s true in all neighborhoods, but especially so in inner cities and other low-income areas, which typically have poor food environments — with more convenience stores offering fatty, sugary snacks and fewer grocery stores stocked with whole fruits, vegetables and meats — that encourage unhealthy eating and weight gain.

A 2009 study of kids in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood found that those who lived within one city block of a convenience store were more likely to be overweight or obese than kids who lived farther way. Of the surveyed blocks on which the children in the study lived, 55% had a convenience store and 41% had a fast food restaurant.

The current research was published in the journal Pediatrics.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.