Active Voice: The Fittest Children Cycle for FUN
By Gavin Sandercock, Ph.D.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Dr. Gavin Sandercock is a lecturer in sports science at the University of Essex, UK. He is principal investigator in the East of England Healthy Hearts (EoEHH) Study, from which the data discussed in this commentary were taken. The EoEHH study now includes physical activity and fitness measures of nearly 10,000 10-to-16-year-olds. This commentary presents Dr. Sandercock’s views associated with the research article he and several colleagues published in the March 2012 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise® (MSSE).

The link between cycling to school (active transport) and children’s fitness is now well established but there is a surprising lack of comparable data regarding recreational cycling.

In our study recently reported in MSSE, we assessed the recreational cycling habits of 5,578 schoolchildren and grouped them according to their weekly recreational cycling frequency as: Non-cyclists, Occasional or Regular cyclists. We also assessed each child’s habitual physical activity patterns and measured their cardiorespiratory fitness using the 20m shuttle-run test. We classified each child as either fit or unfit depending on whether they met the FITNESSGRAM healthy fitness zone standards.

Overall, 46% of girls and 26% of boys were non-cyclists. Compared with these non-cyclists, occasional cyclists were 30-40% more likely to be fit and frequent cyclists 60-70% more likely to meet our fitness criteria.

To be sure that our findings were not being influenced by school travel habits, we performed a second analysis excluding the 513 children who cycled to school. Even without these children (most of whom were regular recreational cyclists), the odds of being fit were much higher in both occasional (30-40% more likely) and regular (40-60% more likely) recreational cyclists.

While the odds of recreational cyclists being fit are similar to those reported for active commuters, we feel the most important element of this study is the sheer number of children included in the two cycling groups. Only 8% of our sample engaged in cycling for the purpose of commuting to school; nationally, this number is even lower at 2-4%. This means that benefits of cycling, like improved cardiorespiratory fitness, are not available to around 98% of the population. The 53% of girls and nearly 75% of boys who cycle recreationally represent a much larger population whose health may potentially benefit from cycling than do active commuters.

Commonly-given reasons why children do not cycle to school include traffic danger, parental concerns around neighborhood safety, and the child’s cycling abilities. School choice and location are often limited and, therefore, so are the routes for cycling to that school.

Recreational cycling provides children with different choices of route, distance, safety and even intensity and duration of exercise. If children (and parents) can actively choose where and when the activity takes place, concerns over safety are smaller barriers to participation.

Cycling to school may improve health but also saves money, limits carbon emissions, and reduces local congestion. Despite the success of many interventions such as Sustrans’ Bike It project, which can double the levels of cycling to school, this mode of travel remains rare indeed. Research from Sustrans’ shows that although half of children would like to cycle to school, only 4% actually do. Perhaps concentrating purely on promoting cycling to children as a mode of transport has been misguided? Children tend to perform physical activities for intrinsic pleasure, so perhaps putting the fun back into cycling could indirectly increase the numbers who eventually commute by bicycle. Perceived lack of cycling ability is a major barrier to active transport. If interventions were aimed at promoting recreational cycling, those who begin cycling and improve their abilities may naturally ‘graduate’ to become habitual active commuters when it is possible for them to do so.