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Education Fewer Canadian students walking or cycling to school raises concerns

The number of elementary-school students being driven to school has more than doubled, a new study shows, adding to concerns about the declining levels of physical activity among Canadian schoolchildren.

The study, released on Tuesday, found that over the past 25 years, fewer children in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas were walking or cycling to school. In 2011, almost 31 per cent of children 11 to 13 years old were being driven to school, up from 12 per cent in 1986. There was a similar pattern among high-school students.

Ron Buliung, a University of Toronto geography professor and lead researcher on the study, said parents are generally driving their children to school on their way to work because it is convenient. But walking to school not only has physical benefits, it has also been associated with improved academic performance and socialization.

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The study was released by the regional transit agency Metrolinx and used data from a travel survey conducted every five years. The study suggests that patterns are established in childhood, and children who are active make more sustainable transportation decisions later in life.

The study showed that daily school trips by car for elementary-school children climbed the greatest in Durham, Peel and York regions. But even in Toronto, it went up: Twenty-five per cent of elementary-school children were being driven in 2011, compared with 10 per cent in 1986.

Meanwhile, less than half of the students 11 to 13 years old in Toronto were walking or biking to school in 2011, compared with 62 per cent in 1986.

"One of the things that households can actually miss out on is that contact time, just hanging out on that walk to school and having a conversation about what's happening in your child's life," Prof. Buliung said. "You learn things."

He added: "My big concern is that we get children walking, if they're able to do so."

A 2012 Danish study that involved nearly 20,000 schoolchildren found that those who walked or cycled to school concentrated better on a simple cognitive task than their peers who travelled by car or bus.

Niels Egelund, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark and the lead researcher, said he was "astonished" by the results.

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"We could see that there was some influence from eating your breakfast. But the influence from physical exercise was even greater," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "It means a little something if you have a little bit of exercise – or perhaps a lot of exercise – before you have to sit down and concentrate."

Prof. Buliung, who walks his eight-year-old daughter to school, worries that there is a generation of children who have been chauffeured around by car to almost all their activities, and, as a result, may not have enough knowledge on different methods of getting around a city.

"At the end of the day, there are things that are good for children and right to do," he said. "One of the outcomes [of walking to school] may be an improved ability to concentrate."

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