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‘Active travel’ to and from school a vital strategy to combat obesity

Australian children are amongst the most ‘chauffeured’ in the world but are we doing more harm than good by driving our children to and from school instead of supporting them to walk, ride or scoot all or part-way to school?

In today’s post Hazel Fetherston from the Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC) discusses the importance of supporting active travel as a way of improving the health of Australian children.  The AHPC will be suggesting specific policies and strategies to promote active travel to the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic at its inquiry this week.

The public hearings of this Inquiry have so far covered a broad range of issues relating to obesity with witnesses challenging political representatives to develop comprehensive responses to this important health threat to our community.


Hazel Fetherston writes:

This week, a number of organisations and individuals will be presenting evidence at the Melbourne and Sydney public hearings to the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia. Many of these presentations will call for the government to implement a sugar tax despite the clear position the Turnbull government has taken on this issue.

Just last Wednesday, the current Minister for Sport, Senator McKenzie said, “I will never back a sugar tax in this country”. Despite the political reluctance, the public health sector continues to advocate for a sugar tax but it is time we turn our attention to other policy solutions to tackle obesity.

Poor report card

A 2015 Australian report card on children’s health suggests that two-thirds of 5-6 year olds and over half of 9-10 year olds are driven to school every day. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 70 per cent of children and more than 91.5 per cent of young people are not doing enough physical activity each day and an estimated over one-quarter of children are overweight or obese.

Physical inactivity is a major risk factor at every stage of life and can lead to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, kidney disease and even asthma. We can prevent chronic diseases. It is estimated that one-third of chronic diseases can be prevented if we address the underlying risk factors of poor health; poor nutrition, smoking, risky alcohol intake and physical inactivity.

This [chronic disease] is a complex issue but there is an easy, economically sound and easily implementable solution. Earlier this year, leading Australian experts endorsed a national active school travel policy to support 3.7million school-aged children to walk, scoot, skate or cycle to and from school each day.

A pathway to better health

Led by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University, Active School Travel: pathways to a healthy future outlines a national framework for implementation and is endorsed by parents, researchers, public health groups and the Australian Primary Principals Association.

There is strong evidence from Australian and globally to suggest that active travel is feasible but there are important barriers which we must address including safety. Parental fear, attitudes and social norms related to safety of active travel to and from school is a detriment to our society and to the health of our children.

Improving the infrastructure around schools is a crucial component to get more people moving and influence their decision to participate in daily exercise through active travel. All schools should be provided with safe and connected walking and cycling footpaths for all with a particular focus to improving roads with high accident frequencies, traffic risks and hazards.

Existing ‘kiss and ride’ zones are designed to improve children’s safety, parents’ convenience and to reduce congestion and confusion. Shifting these existing zones and creating a one-kilometre active travel radius could be rolled-out across all Australian schools to provide children who cannot walk, skate, cycle or scoot all the way to school, an extra 15 minutes of daily physical activity. Any amount of physical activity is beneficial; the more the better.

Reducing the number of cars around school zones will also improve air pollution. Approximately 2.5 million Australians are affected by asthma- that’s 1 in every 9 Australians. There is a clear link between dirty, polluted air and children developing chest problems later in life.

Senate Inquiry hearing

Today, the Australian Health Policy Collaboration is presenting evidence to the Senate Select Committee into the Obesity Epidemic in Australia in Melbourne. We will be recommending that active school travel is a worthwhile and important investment towards the health of all current and future children and for the future economic prosperity of Australia.

This is not a big ask. In fact, many jurisdictions across Australia have dedicated policies and strategies for promoting active travel but this is not enough to shift physical inactivity from the margins to the mainstream.

The experts have spoken and it is time that governments listened. This is sound public policy backed by the best evidence and endorsed by leading Australian experts.

A national active travel policy will support 3.7 million children, their families and communities to engage in physical activity every day.

Active school travel is easy, effective and economically sound.

Hazel Fetherston is the National Policy Strategy Coordinator at the Australian Health Policy Collaboration.

For more information on the Obesity Inquiry, check out Croakey’s comprehensive summary of the submissions here.