Increasing active travel to school

Research proving that walking or cycling to school results in health benefits has informed national and international policy.

It seems obvious that walking or cycling to school is better for children than being driven in a car. But the evidence to back up this assumption did not exist until researchers used accelerometers and GPS data to track children's activity levels.

Increasing active travel to destinations such as work or school has been identified as a major way to address the problem of population level physical inactivity, and is embraced in many local, regional and national policy documents.

Children are a major focus of such initiatives, since the majority of UK children are not sufficiently active to meet current health guidelines.

Over the past decade active travel to school has been recognised as a major opportunity for children to achieve healthy levels of physical activity.

Informing public health 

The work of Professor Ashley Cooper and his colleague Dr Angie Page, both in the School for Policy Studies, has directly informed and underpinned understanding of the importance of active travel to school by policy makers and public health practitioners.

Their research is heavily cited in policy and planning documents from 2009 to the present date and is used by organisations which implement interventions to increase active travel in the UK and internationally.

Sustrans, for example, said “Prof Cooper and Dr Page's research provides important support for us and helps steer and ensure the success of our work”.

Providing the evidence

“Our work was stimulated by a 1998 Government White Paper which stated that 'not walking or cycling to school means that children get much less exercise…. Whilst this may be intuitively true, we could not find any data to support this assertion. For example, children could compensate for the effort of walking to school by lower physical activity elsewhere during the day and without data, there was no way of proving otherwise.”  Dr Angie PageSchool for Policy Studies

Dr Page and Prof Cooper used newly developed instruments (accelerometers) which provide an objective measure of the level and pattern of children’s physical activity to address this issue.

They published the first study worldwide to use innovative time-patterning of accelerometer data in 2003, showing active travel to school to be an important contributor to daily physical activity in a sample of Bristol children.

They then extended this work by combining accelerometer and GPS data to visualise journeys to and from school in a Geographical Information System, allowing activity in these journeys to be accurately quantified, a method called spatial segmentation.

Using this method, Dr Page and Prof Cooper showed that walking to school contributed to overall moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and hence to meeting health guidelines for children.

Contributing to policy

The research led to Prof Cooper being invited to sit on the Programme Development Group (PDG) for development of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Public Health Guidance for increasing children and young people’s physical activity.

The guidance was published in January 2009 and is intended for implementation by a wide range of deliverers from national and high level policy and strategy through to local strategic planning, local organisations (planning, delivery and training) and local practitioners.

Prof Cooper and Dr Page continue to work directly with national and international organisations to achieve increases in active travel among children.

In the UK they work closely with Sustrans in supporting active travel to school programmes such as Safe Routes to Schools and Bike It by providing both the evidence base from their research and expert guidance that they provide directly to the organisation.

“Our work has been pivotal in the implementation of local, national and international active travel policies for children,” said Dr Page. “Active travel is now assumed to be the right thing to do because of various initiatives that have encouraged children to walk or cycle to school. It is rewarding to think that our work has had an impact on so many people.”

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