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Health and Personal Safety

These two issues tend to push children in opposing directions. Fear for children's immediate safety from traffic and from attack tends to push them into cars - but fear of health problems associated with inactivity ought to push them out the other side and back onto their feet or bikes.

Central concerns for children who are driven to school are their fitness, fatness and the long-term health problems from being overweight/unfit and lung problems associated with air pollution.

Statistics tend to indicate that the UK population is getting less active, fatter and more unfit. If we want to see the future we have only to look across the Atlantic. The USA acts for us in this regard like a memento mori.

Fitness Tests are not so simple
Many people have tried to devise simple fitness tests to show a direct correlation between children's mode of travel to school and their general levels of fitness. Sophisticated arguments then fly about definitions of fitness and how to measure it ethically and safely. The bald truth is, too, that it has so far proved impossible to demonstrate any such simple link. Children who are driven to school may take part in other sports activities, and actually be fitter than children who walk or cycles to school but otherwise avoid exercise like the plague.

The DOH has data about how much exercise children should have - see more on the "Walking" page.

Asthma and obesity
A recent study, (reported by the BBC in Nov 2001) links obesity in children with asthma. Researchers from University Children's Hospital, Munich, Germany and Harvard Medical School, USA, working on children in America found that the fattest children were 77% more likely to have asthma symptoms. The study is published in the journal Thorax and suggests that increased weight might lead to inflammation in the respiratory tract, which could be the key factor in inducing asthma. The number of youngsters in the UK considered fat or obese has almost doubled in the last decade. Over 5m people are currently being treated for asthma, compared to 3.4m in 1999.

Asthma and air pollution
It is well known that asthma is made worse by air pollution, but a recent US study indicates that smog (in particular ozone) may actually play a part in causing it. (Dr Rob McConnell - University of Southern California in Los Angeles.)

Long term health problems
Most of us feel that it is intuitively a good idea to encourage children to walk or cycle to school, and hope that this will engender good active habits which will last into later life, when inactive adults are dogged by problems such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some types of cancer.

Gathering data to back up our intuitions
At least one university is researching the health impacts of children's car use and car dependency. Some results are expected in 2003. See Click here for some more useful websites.

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