The Link Between Kids Who Walk or Bike to School and Concentration Pt. 2

photo credit: HASTe’s own Kerry Hamilton

Last fall, researchers in Denmark conducted a study involving 20,000 students to determine whether there was a connection between nutrition and students’ ability to concentrate. Although this part of the study didn’t yield the expected results, the team did find something unexpected and very interesting: children who walked or rode their bicycles to school seemed to be able to concentrate better than their peers who were driven.

A quick search will yield a number of articles and blog posts about the study. But despite the interest it generated, little information is available about what exactly it looked at and found – and nothing new has emerged since the original press release.

Keen to learn more, HASTe staff recently reached out to Dr. Niels Egelund, Director of the Centre for Strategic Education Research at Aarhus University and the co-author of the study, to find out more about it.

Professor Egelund’s study was part of Danish Science Week, an annual event in Denmark that seeks to “create a wider and deeper understanding of science and technology, especially among the country’s students.” As part of the event, researchers carry out a Mass Experiment on a particular theme. Last year, the theme was food, but the study – which involved almost 20,000 children between the ages of 5 and 19 – yielded some interesting off-the-plate findings.

Professor Egelund told us that the special nature of the Mass Experiment made the study different from normal accademic research. According to the website Science Nordic: “Results from these Mass Experiments may not have the highest level of scientific validity, as the data is collected from little children. However, the great number of participants does indicate certain trends.” Professor Egelund had only had a week to study the results before reporting on the study’s findings, and though he hoped to write an article about it in the future, he was happy to send us the slide deck he used in his presentation. Of course the presentation slides were in Danish, but thanks to our friends at Fraser Health we were able to get the bulk of the material translated.

The study had students of all ages participate in a simple exercise designed to test their ability to concentrate. Students were shown images of three faces, which could be peeled apart into 39 cut-out parts. They were asked to study the faces, then peel them apart and arrange them on a table. The students were then shown a fourth image of a face for 15 seconds, and asked to use the parts they had to recreate the image from memory, as accurately as possible, within a time limit.

Students were scored based on the number of pieces of the new image they placed correctly. After the study was concluded, researchers looked at what factors influenced student scores. The assumption was that, since the exercise relied on students’ ability to concentrate, factors that impacted students’ performance on this exercise would affect their ability to concentrate on a given task – an ability they use everyday, and contributes to their performance, in the classroom.

Dr. Egelund’s team found that performance on the exercise improved with age, with 5 year olds averaging 3 to 4 correct placements while 19 year olds averaged between 9 and 10. Gender factored in heavily as well, with girls averaging more than a full placement better than boys.

But while food intake – whether a student had eaten breakfast that morning or at school – barely seemed to impact students’ scores, children who indicated that they had walked or biked to school the morning they participated in the exercise averaged 1/2 a placement better than their peers who were driven. What made this finding particularly striking was that students participated in the experiment’s exercise after lunch – several hours after arriving at schools – which suggests the concentration benefits arising from their active morning trip carried through much of their day.

So what does this mean? For advocates of Active and Safe Routes to School, it would seem like the silver bullet needed to reverse a trend towards more and more children being driven to school. We know that active travel makes you healthier, is better for the environment and leads to safer streets. If letting your child walk or wheel to school or walking with them helped them concentrate better and excel in their studies, well, what parent could resist?

As mentioned previously, Danish Mass Experiment studies are not held to the highest levels of scientific rigor. But it would be difficult to argue that 20,000 children could be wrong. At the very least, we hope Dr. Egelund’s study prompts further efforts to explore and confirm these results. And while we wait, HASTe urges all parents to play it safe: tomorrow morning, while your kids are donning backpacks and fumbling with their laces… hide the car keys!

If your Danish is up to snuff, you can find more information about this study here.

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