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The link between safer streets and healthy kids

Published: 22 May 2019

Professor Erica Hinckson is the Head of School of Sport and Recreation at the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences at AUT University. 

She writes for OurAuckland about the importance of kids staying active and healthy, and the role that transport can play.

For many of us, our daily commute to and from work is akin to engaging in a battle of sorts.

My old vehicle commute to work took between an hour to an hour and a half each way, during which I was exposed to some unhealthy behaviours: inactive time sitting in my car, eating breakfast at the speed of light, fending off road rage from impatient drivers and getting to work stressed.

It’s always been a battle of wits to try and get to work in one piece. And like the gift that keeps on giving, the fun didn’t stop there. It was repeated during the evening drive home.

After several years of subjecting myself to this torture, I made the decision to change jobs and move closer to my new workplace. This opened up new ways of getting out and about for me and my family. It was a bold move for us but one we’ve never regretted. (And downsizing is so cathartic!)

My son got to walk to school every day during his primary school years, cycled during intermediate years and resumed walking during high school. Being active and sporty has always been important to our family but for many Aucklanders their environment isn’t conducive to do so when it comes to choosing transport alternatives.

Safe streets mean healthier kids

Our modern urban environment is limiting people from living active and healthy lives and our children have more restrictions imposed on them than ever before. Gone are the days when we all felt confident to allow our kids to walk or cycle safely to school.

A recent physical activity report card for Kiwi kids showed only 43 per cent were allowed to get out and about on their own.

Only 26 per cent of parents believed that letting their kids walk or cycle independently was safe (due to threats on our roads).

At the same time, kids’ physical activity levels are declining with only 7 per cent of 5-17 year olds getting the recommended level of moderate to vigorous physical activity (PA) of 60 min per day.

Active commuting to school has steadily decreased over the years and the overall fitness levels for Kiwi kids has fallen.

Sedentary behaviour, particularly screen time, has increased and obesity levels are on the rise (~100,000 NZ children suffer from excess weight). Carrying excess weight early on in life is of serious concern because in most of these children, obesity is carried into adulthood, ultimately increasing the risk of cardiovascular issues and diabetes.

As parents, our number one reason for not allowing our kids to walk, cycle or scooter around freely is our fear of drivers not sharing the road safely with others and crashes with motorised vehicles. As a mum, I know this fear all too well.

However, I am encouraged by the changes being made in our city.

Traffic calming, setting safe and survivable speed limits and initiatives like Auckland Transport’s Travelwise Schools and Safe Streets programmes, especially on roads to schools are good first steps towards increasing active transport for our children.

The benefits of walking and cycling

As a parent, I know that when the road environment is safe I will allow my son to walk, cycle or scooter to school, the local dairy or even to sports practice on his own. When we allow our kids to walk or cycle two important things happen:

  1. Our children learn that the car is not the only option available for travel
  2. They can roam in their neighbourhoods independently.

Consequently, by being outdoors children have more opportunities to meet the PA recommendations of 60 minutes per day which is crucial for physical and intellectual development. They also have opportunities to engage with unstructured play essential for developing skills of executive function and self-regulation (planning, focused attention, remembering instructions, juggling multiple tasks successfully).

By spending time outdoors children learn to make informed decisions and calculated risks. They figure out what they can and cannot do, try, fail and try again, and are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges as they grow up. They get to socialise, learn how to work together, make friends, share and cooperate, and learn how to treat each other. They also get to know their environment, as by being close to nature, they learn to appreciate it.

We absolutely need to make our roads calmer by reducing speed limits in residential streets and nearby schools. The benefits surpass the need to get to a destination in a car.

I am encouraged when I see initiatives like the safe speeds programme and introduction of bylaws to reduce speeds on Auckland roads by Auckland Transport.

As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles we want a better and healthier future for our children.

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