'Active transportation' program seeks to get kids moving to and from school

U of A researchers develop guide for parents and school administrators to set up programs aimed at encouraging students to walk or cycle to school safely.

With the majority of children not getting enough physical activity to meet current Canadian guidelines, University of Alberta researchers are encouraging parents and school administrators to implement structured programs that help children travel to and from school in a safe and active manner.

"Active transportation, such as walking or cycling, to and from school can contribute to daily physical activity levels, improve fitness and reduce the risk of developing a chronic disease," said Soultana Macridis, research associate with the U of A's Alberta Centre for Active Living.

"In fact, children who use school active transportation have shown to have increased self-confidence and independence, and are less likely to experience childhood obesity."

Kimberley McFadden, a PhD student in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation and co-author on the study, said recent reports on children's activity levels are showing that fewer Canadian children are meeting daily recommendations.

A Statistics Canada report from 2017 showed that, among youth aged five to 17, only 13 per cent of boys and just six per cent of girls were getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily as outlined in current Canadian physical activity guidelines.

To combat inactivity, the team-working in partnership with SHAPE Alberta and Ever Active Schools-surveyed "active transportation champions" from across the province to explore and understand their perspectives on planning and implementing school active transportation initiatives.

"In the survey, champions defined success in a variety of ways, from increased support from the school and community to changes in student behaviour toward use of active transportation, and even changes in the urban environment to aid safe active transportation," said Macridis.

The survey also asked champions what challenges they faced when trying to implement their plans. The results identified six key barriers: distance students must travel, time, lack of funding, insufficient support, perceived safety and environmental/weather changes.

From there, the research team came up with a six-step process to ensure safe, successful programs are in place for students. As a school active transportation champion herself, Macridis suggested being creative when trying to overcome challenges.

For example, she implemented "walking school buses" in the various rural communities she has worked in over the past several years, where distance and safety concerns-such as encounters with wildlife-were an issue. Students were dropped off at a stop along the walking school bus route, where they would be "picked up" by the walking school bus of students, teachers or parent volunteers.

McFadden added that incorporating short bouts of physical activity throughout the day is something champions can look at adding to their school active transportation plans. And while active transportation planning can be simple, buy-in from the committee, schools, parents and-most importantly-students, is imperative.

"The goal is not only to increase youth physical activity levels, but also to have the students want to participate in these types of physical activity plans. If we can accomplish that, youth can make a significant shift toward lowering-or at least delaying-the risk factors and diseases associated with inactivity and improving their overall quality of life."