Washington D.C: Does your child go to school by walking or pedaling? If your answer is no, then your child can easily fall prey to obesity. A recent study has been found that children who regularly walk or cycle to school are less prone to becoming overweight.

The study was published in the journal ‘BMC Public Health.’ Based on results from more than 2000 primary-age schoolchildren from across London, the researchers have found that walking or cycling to school is a strong predictor of obesity levels, a result which was consistent across neighbourhoods, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The study is the first to assess the effects of physical activity on childhood overweight and obesity levels for primary schoolchildren by simultaneously relating two of the main types of extracurricular physical activity: daily commuting to school and frequency of participation in various sports activities.

Instead of using Body-Mass Index (BMI) as a measure of obesity, the researchers measured body fat and muscle mass and assessed how these were correlated with physical activity levels. BMI is the most commonly used metric to measure obesity levels due to its simplicity; however, it is limited as BMI looks at total weight, including ‘healthy’ muscle mass, rather than fat mass alone.

“Both BMI itself and the points at which high BMI is associated with poor health vary with age, sex and ethnicity,” said Lander Bosch, the lead researcher. “While adjustments have been made in recent years to account for these variations, BMI remains a flawed way to measure the health risks associated with obesity,” he added.

The current study is based on data from the Size and Lung Function in Children (SLIC) study, carried out at University College London between 2010 and 2013. More than 2000 London primary schoolchildren, from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, were included in the study, which looked at their physical activity levels, body composition and socioeconomic status.

Close to half of the children in the study took part in sports every day, and a similar proportion actively commuted to school, travelling by either on foot, bicycle or scooter. The researchers found that children who actively commuted to school had lower body fat, and therefore were less likely to be overweight or obese.

However, when looking at fat mass and muscle mass separately, children who engaged in sports every day had significantly more muscle development, while their fat mass did not significantly differ.
“The link between frequent participation in sport and obesity levels has generated inconsistent findings in previous research, but many of these studies were looking at BMI only,” said Bosch.

“However, when looking at body fat instead, we showed there was a trend whereby children who were not active were more likely to be overweight or obese. It’s likely that when looking at BMI, some inactive children aren’t classified as obese due to reduced muscle mass,” he added.

The researchers believe that it is important to understand the relationship between obesity levels and different types of physical activity in order to develop informed policy measures that could contribute to the reversal of the childhood obesity epidemic.

“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 Bosch.