Years ago, my girls and I began making a concentrated effort to walk the short distance to school whenever possible. My eldest daughter even said she likes to start and end her school day with a nice walk to get her brain going.
The research backs her up on this. Walking (or biking) to school isn't always a practical option, but when it's safe and sensible, it really does seem to give kids a significant boost, both in their school performance and their overall health.
According to the results of one Danish study, for example, kids who bike or walk to school have better concentration throughout the school day than their peers who drive or use public transportation. The study was part of "Mass Experiment," a project that evaluated the connection between diet and exercise and a child's power of concentration. Researchers looked at nearly 20,000 Danish kids between the ages of 5 and 19 and found that those who cycled or walked to school performed significantly better on school tasks demanding concentration (like solving puzzles) than their peers who were driven to school. What's more, the effects of the enhanced concentration lasted for up to four hours after they took a seat at their desks.
Niels Egelund of Aarhus University in Denmark, who conducted the research, told MNN he was surprised by how beneficial this exercise was for students — even more so than diet. "The results showed that having breakfast and lunch has an impact, but not very much compared to having exercised," Egelund said. "As a third-grade pupil, if you exercise and bike to school, your ability to concentrate increases to the equivalent of someone half a year further in their studies."
Lower risk of being overweight
Other research has also linked walking or biking to school with improved performance at school, as well as broader health benefits. In a 2019 study published in BMC Public Health from the United Kingdom, for example, researchers found that children who regularly walk or bike to school are less likely to be overweight or obese than those who travel by car or public transit. The study looked at more than 2,000 primary-age schoolchildren across London, revealing that walking or biking to school is a strong predictor of obesity levels, a result that was consistent across neighborhoods, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Rather than using body-mass index (BMI), which they describe as "a flawed way to measure the health risks associated with obesity," the study's authors measured body fat and muscle mass to examine how they correlate with physical activity levels.
"Our findings suggest that interventions promoting regular participation in sports, and particularly active commuting to school, could be promising for combating childhood obesity — it's something so easy to implement, and it makes such a big difference," said first author Lander Bosch, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Cambridge, in a statement.
Uphill both ways
Still, in the United States, the national numbers for walking and biking to school are low. Just 13% of U.S. students between age 5 and 14 usually walked or biked to school in 2009, according to Safe Routes to School, compared with 50% in 1969. In a 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), researchers found that at most schools, 10% or fewer of students walked or biked on an average day.
Some students don't have a very walkable or bikable route to school, although many who do still ride in cars or public transit. In 1969, about 41% of U.S. children between kindergarten and eighth grade lived within 1 mile of school, according to Safe Routes to School, and 89% of them usually walked or biked. In 2009, just 31% of K-8 students lived within a mile of school, but even within that group, only about one-third usually walked or biked.
Isn't it ironic that we as parents spend so much time, money and effort shuttling our kids to various extracurricular activities each day to give them exercise for their brains and bodies, when simply helping them walk or bike to school might offer an even greater benefit?
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in February 2013.