HOUSTON - Low-income, ethnic minority students from a large city like Houston commonly walk or bike to school, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk.
The new study also found that students who walked or biked to school were more likely to achieve higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity overall.
The high overall rate of walking and biking in this sample can be attributed to several causes, say the authors. For one, children living in an urban environment are likely to live within walking distance of school. Another possible factor could be that some low-income parents may not own a car, or may be likelier to have time constraints limiting their ability to drive children to and from school.
Relatively few of the students followed general recommendations for pedestrian safety. One in four did not go to the corner or use a crosswalk to cross; one in four ran across the street instead of walking; two-thirds did not stop at the curb before crossing; and less than three percent looked left-right-left before crossing the street.
“From our sample, it appears that a lot of children in low-income, ethnic minority communities may walk and bike to school,” said Jason A. Mendoza, MD, MPH, of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, lead author of the study. “In many ways, this is a good thing. Members of these communities are at a higher risk of becoming obese, and active commuting can be part of a healthy and active lifestyle.”
Among the students studied – mostly Latino and Black fourth-graders in low-income schools in Houston, Texas – 43 percent of trips to school were made by either walking or biking. Recent national studies have shown that among the general U.S. population, just 13 percent of students walk or bike to school several times per week.
“The results of our study, combined with other evidence, lead us to believe that in many communities, more needs to be done to make it safer for kids to walk or bike to school,” said Mendoza. “Past research has shown that neighborhoods with centrally located schools, less traffic, and more sidewalks/trails, crosswalks and traffic lights make it safer for children to walk to school.”
The study also found that a student’s cultural background may play a role in determining whether he or she walked or biked to school. Latino children were less likely than non-Latino children (82.5 percent of whom were non-Latino Black) to walk or bike to school. Moreover, Latino children who were more “acculturated” (had adopted more lifestyle habits from the mainstream U.S. culture) were less likely to walk or bike to school. “These findings could indicate that the adoption of American cultural norms somehow discourages active commuting among Latinos,” said Mendoza.
Past research has shown significant racial disparities in the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic: 38.2 percent of Latino children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese, as are 35.9 percent of Black children in that age group, compared with 31.7 percent of all children those ages. Obesity puts children at risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep disorders and social stigmatization.
The study, titled “Ethnic Minority Children's Active Commuting to School and Association with Physical Activity and Pedestrian Safety Behavior,” was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national program Active Living Research.