Children whose parents drive them to school lead less active lifestyles overall than those who walk, cycle or take public transport, according to new research. The findings showed that children who take public transport to school are as active as those who walk or cycle, even at weekends outside school commuting times.

The same research also found that South Asian children, who in previous studies have been shown to be possibly less active and to have higher fat levels than other ethnic groups, are more likely to be driven to school, despite living closer.

Researchers from St George’s, University of London studied the association between method of travelling to school and physical activity levels of 2,035 children aged nine and 10 in English urban areas. The study was published online today (3 February) in the journal PLoS ONE, and funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), The Wellcome Trust and the National Prevention Research Initiative (NPRI).

The children wore activity monitors to record their daily movement levels over seven days, including time spent in light, moderate or vigorous activity.

The results showed that children travelling to school by car were less active over the course of each weekday, spending an average of 67 minutes in moderate to vigorous physical activity. This was seven minutes less per weekday than walkers and cyclists, and 11 minutes less than children who took public transport.

Children using public transport were more likely to live further from school than walkers or cyclists. The researchers believe the comparatively high levels of activity among children who took public transport partly reflect the amount of walking they did to and from a bus stop or train station.

However, the respective weekend activity patterns for each group were similar to results during the week. This indicates the overall physical benefit for those using active forms of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport to and from school.

The researchers also calculated the potential effect on physical activity levels for children in the study of changing from car travel to active forms of transport. They found that this could increase their physical activity level by nine per cent.

In addition, differences emerged between ethnic groups. White European children were more likely to walk or cycle, black African Caribbeans were more likely to use public transport and South Asians, who tended to live closer to school, were more likely to travel by car.

Previous studies have focused mainly on predominantly white European, non-urban areas. They have shown that active travel is linked to higher activity during weekdays, but have not examined the overall effect.

Study lead Dr Chris Owen said: “One of the questions this study raises is whether active travel promotes a healthy lifestyle, or whether it is actually the result of having a more active lifestyle anyway. As the different groups displayed similar activity patterns at the weekend, it suggests the difference may be down to more general lifestyle choices.

“The only way to be sure is to do further studies assessing physical activity levels at an earlier stage in children’s lives, before they begin commuting to school.”

Dr Owen said that studies looking at older children travelling to secondary school, who have further to travel, are also needed to provide a fuller picture.

He added: “It's clear that active travel to school provides a convenient way to increase levels of physical activity that can be easily integrated into children’s lives."

Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the BHF, said: “With around a third of children classified as overweight or obese today it’s essential we do everything possible to encourage young people to lead a healthier lifestyle.

“It’s obvious that walking or cycling to school increases a child’s physical activity levels. However, this study found using public transport, instead of a car to travel to school, also had a positive impact on children’s exercise levels. Simply swapping the car for a bus or train would help ease congestion on the roads and get kids on the move again.

“It’s also important for local authorities to feature public health more strongly in transport and planning policies. Safe cycling routes and good public transport links are important for everyone.”

The paper can be read here.