Parents’ reliance on cars a factor in children not taking enough physical activity, study finds

Just one-third of children walk or cycle to school

Just one-third of children actively commute to school by walking or cycling, according to a new study that shows the vast majority of pupils are not getting enough daily exercise.

Just one in five primary students and one in 10 second-level students take the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended level of physical activity, the study shows, with parents’ heavy reliance on car commutes for school journeys an important contributing factor.

Two-thirds of all school students (68 per cent) commute by motorised transport – car or public transport – according to the research by UCD’s school of public health, physiotherapy and sports science.

Six out of every 10 primary students (57 per cent) travel to school by car while public transport is the most common method of commuting to school at second-level.

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Among primary students, 57 per cent use private transport to commute to school, 33 per cent walk, 7 per cent go on public transport and just 3 per cent cycle.

Some 37 per cent of second-level students commute by public transport, 33 per cent use private transport, 28 per cent walk and 2 per cent cycle.

Young people were more likely to actively commute to school if they attended a non-DEIS school or an urban school. They were less likely to cycle or walk if their family owned a car or they lived more than 5km from school. There were no significant variations in active commuting between boys and girls.

“Active travel to school is one method of increasing youth physical activity and health at a time when society is becoming more and more sedentary,” according to authors Dr Claire Power and Prof Patricia Fitzpatrick.

“Further in-depth research is required to understand why this is the case. Once established, we need to act with a whole-of-society approach to encourage and enable active travel to school participation among these subgroups to enable a higher proportion of active commuting in the future.”

The two authors say that when children were asked about the barriers to active commuting they highlighted issues that have been addressed in other countries, such as the introduction of walking-to-school groups.

When asked why they do not walk or cycle to school, students said they would consider doing so if changes were made. The most popular suggestions made by primary students were for safer road crossings, followed by less traffic, lighter schoolbags and more cycle-lanes. One in six primary students who do not actively commute said they would consider doing so if their parents consented.

Second-level students suggested, in order, lighter schoolbags, less traffic and safer road crossings.

The WHO recommends children and adolescents should accumulate 60 minutes of physical activity daily, yet globally only 25 per cent achieve this.

The study is based on data from questionnaire of 6,650 students across the island of Ireland from 2018, before some improvements in cycling infrastructure were undertaken.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.