Spatial Classification of Youth Physical Activity Patterns

According to this study using GPS to track the location of teens’ physical activity, commuting is an important source of exercise for urban youth, but less so for rural and suburban kids, suggesting the built environment is significant.

Health habits developed in youth carry forward, laying the basis for adult behaviors. Thus, it is important to establish healthy patterns of physical activity in teens. Little is known about where kids get their exercise. This study tracks the physical activity of 380 young teens, ages 12-16, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, using accelerometers and GPS locators to see how and where youth get the most physical activity over a seven-day period of school and weekend days. The data is used to examine activity patterns by gender, urbanicity, and built environments. Notably, the majority of studies use a simple “urban-rural” split to analyze urbanicity, but researchers here added “suburban.”

Key Findings:

  • Looking at the study group as a whole, active commuting accounted for the largest proportion of minutes of vigorous physical activity (MVPA), followed by school and home.
  • Over 55 percent of the MVPA of urban youth were logged during commuting to and from school and other locations. But they logged almost three times more overall MVPA than suburban and rural youth.
  • Active commuting also accounted for the largest proportion of physical activity by suburban youth (although suburban boys got a larger percentage of their MVPA at home), while the largest proportion of MVPA for rural students occurred at school.
  • Overall, girls logged more MVPA than boys and MVPA declined with age.
  • Researchers were able to objectively capture the physical location of more than 60 percent of MVPA.

The authors note their findings underline that the importance of active commuting for youth “cannot be understated,” although due to the novelty of their work, they recommend additional study before implementing policies.