The lack of zoning in Dunedin secondary schools is depriving pupils of opportunities for much-needed physical activity, new research shows.
University of Otago (Wellington) public health associate professor Michael Keall said if effective school zoning policies were widely applied, pupils would attend their closest school, and would get valuable exercise walking or cycling each day.
However, Otago secondary school principals say when parents choose a school for their child, distance was just one of many factors in a highly complex decision, and the situation was unlikely to change.
Keall led a team of international researchers to examine how school choice influenced how adolescents travelled to school, and found those living within walking distance of their school (less than 2.25km) accumulated an extra 11.5 minutes of physical activity each day, and those who lived within cycling distance (up to 4km away) accumulated 5.5 minutes.
Data was collected from 797 Dunedin adolescents with an average age of 15 attending six secondary schools without school zoning.
He said physical inactivity among teens was a common health issue worldwide, and rates of car-based transport to secondary schools in Dunedin had increased about 10 per cent, between 1989 and 2014.
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Ministry of Health guidelines for adolescents call for an accumulation of at least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
"Parents need to consider their choice of school from the point of view of opportunities to use active travel to school, which has important benefits for health and wellbeing of the child, both now and into the future, as this establishes habits and norms for adulthood."
Keall said that the lack of school zoning meant a proportion of pupils had to travel further to school, and the journey was more likely to become motorised as the distance from home to school increased.
"This greater distance then deprives students of important opportunities for physical activity they would otherwise get from walking or cycling to school.
"Policymakers need to consider the public health considerations of this research when deciding on school zoning policies."
However, Otago Secondary Principals' Association president Linda Miller said, for many parents, the choice of where to send their child to school, was the result of many different considerations.
"Active transport to school is only one, with the logistics around workplace and school commutes having a significant impact.
"While exercise through active transport is an important means of students getting the physical activity essential for healthy living, we also need to look at other ways to ensure this happens so that students who get to school by passive means, are still being active.
"While zoning may help, the existence of school zones is determined by school capacity, and under the current education model, this is unlikely to change in a city like Dunedin that has excess capacity in many schools."
She said the issue of young people not getting sufficient exercise was a societal problem that we needed to solve together.
"Health, education, sport, local, regional and central Government all have a role to play in supporting families and young people to be active.
"Habits around physical activity are modelled firstly by parents, with schools, sports clubs and council amenities playing important roles in encouraging and facilitating this activity.
"Active transport to school is one element in a complex picture."