Saturday, July 14, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) — Fewer than half of American children who live close to school regularly walk or ride a bike to classes, according to a new study that highlights a dramatic shift toward car commuting by children.

Children in the South did the least hoofing and pedaling, partly because of safety concerns, experts believe.

The issue is important because it’s linked to escalating rates of childhood obesity. Many schools have been cutting back on recess and physical education, observed Sarah Martin, the study’s lead author.

“Kids need to take advantage of the opportunities that do exist for physical activity,” said Miss Martin, a Maine-based evaluation consultant and former researcher with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The article is being published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Miss Martin did the research when she was at the CDC.

Other studies have found that relatively few children walk or bike to school. The numbers have dropped as the population has grown, while the number of schools has declined and the distance to get to them has increased for many families.

In 1969, about 90 percent of children who lived within a mile of school walked or rode bikes to get there. In 2004, just 48 percent did that at least one day a week, the new study found.

Separately, federal statistics suggest the numbers are worse, of course, for children who live farther from school. In 1969, 42 percent walked or cycled and in 2001 (the most recent data available for that group), just 16 percent did.

The figures for those living within a mile of school are based on a spring 2004 nationwide, random-digit-dialed telephone survey of families with children ages 9 to 15. At least 7,400 families were surveyed.

The researchers didn’t ask why so many children were driven to school, but possible explanations include parental attitudes about exercise and concerns about safety, Miss Martin said.

Generally, studies have found that less-educated families exercise less and have higher rates of obesity. But Miss Martin’s survey found that the children of well-educated parents were more likely to get a ride to school. She said in those families, both parents are likely to have jobs and may believe it’s safer and more expedient for one of them to drive their child to school on their way to work.

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