Walking to school gives boost in class

A pupil's cognitive performance may be improved if they walk to school rather than be driven in. This is the suggestion of new research published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, which found this type of performance among adolescent girls who walk to the classroom is better than those who travel by bus or car.

The results come from a joint project between the University of Granada, the Autonomous University of Madrid, the University of Zaragoza and the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, which used a sample of 1,700 boys and girls aged between 13 and 18 in five Spanish cities through the Food and Assessment of the Nutritional Status of Spanish Adolescents study.

It was shown that cognitive performance also tends to be improved for females who take 15 minutes or longer to walk to school compared to those who live in closer proximity. 

The authors stated: "Inactive adolescents could be missing out on a very important stimulus to improve their learning and cognitive performance."

Dr Frank Eves, a Chartered Psychologist, suggests there are two points that urge caution about a potentially interesting result:

"The study suggests not only that active travel may be related to cognitive performance in girls but also that greater effects may occur for durations of 15 minutes of more. The data are cross-sectional and do not allow any interpretation in terms of the direction of the effect.  It is quite possible that parents who actively encourage their daughters to be healthy - i.e. get sufficient physical activity - also actively encourage them with their school work.

"While amount of walking has been linked prospectively to reduced cognitive decline in elderly women by Jaffe and co-workers in the USA, the study was not experimental. What is required is formal test of whether increased physical activity, specifically active transport to school, produces increased cognitive performance. The logistics of such a study are non-trivial.  

"Secondly, why was their no effect reported for boys?  Although the authors seem to argue that girls show greater declines in physical activity during adolescence than boys, and hence are more likely to benefit, there would still be numerous boys who also could benefit.  Nonetheless, a report out today by Dezateux and colleagues has shown, levels of physical activity are lower in girls than boys at the age of seven. Similar gender differences have been reported in pre-schoolers in the USA by Sallis and colleagues. Encouraging girls to be more physically active is a major issue."

Last year Chartered Psychologist Dr Ruth Lowry talked wriote an article for this website about the psychological benefits of walking to school.