When are urban kids healthier than rural teens?

The children most likely to walk or cycle to school live in urban areas, with a single parent, and in an economically disadvantaged home, according to survey results that were published in Pediatrics today by Dr. Roman Pabayo of the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre and the university’s Department of Social and preventive medicine.

"The study is important for the well-being of children because most children are not meeting physical activity guidelines needed for optimal growth and development," Pabayo explained. "Active transportation to school represents an affordable and easy way to incorporate physical activity in the daily routines of children. In a separate study on children in Quebec, we have actually found significant associations between weight and whether the child cycles or walks to school.” The term active transportation relates to physical exertion, and excludes public transportation, school buses and driving.

Pabayo’s study is unique in that it follows the same group of children as they age throughout the school years, and it shows that children increasingly use “active transport” to travel to school until they reach ten or eleven years of age, at which point the trend then reverses.

The study looked at the habits of 7690 children, and it revealed that a variety of interesting factors are associated with transport choice. For example, children of parents who reported that their child had many friends in their area were more than twice as likely to increase their active commuting over two years in comparison to other children. Adolescents were less likely to increase their active transportation if there were no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings on their route to school. Whether a child has someone with whom to commute or older siblings were found to be particularly influential.

Some municipalities are already taking an avant-gardist approach to break down these kinds of barriers. In Montreal, for example, the downtown Plateau Mont-Royal borough recently rearranged a thoroughfare shortcut that ran near a school. The results were immediate, and dramatic. While vehicle commuters fumed (literally and figuratively) a few blocks away, a recent study showed that the number of cyclists on the street doubled within a month of the measure being taken.

While the move attracted criticism from some politicians, interest groups and citizens, the political party behind the initiative - Projet Montreal - is satisfied that it has taken a step to improve the wellbeing of Montreal’s children. “Promoting active transportation among children and their families is one of the objectives of Projet Montréal’s program,” Director General Patrick Cigana explained to Rutherford Mansfield. “Proposed policies to improve active transportation include increasing the number of bike paths and better connecting existing ones, establishing pedestrian-friendly streets by changing the direction of one-way streets or by integrating physical impediments such as speed bumps or wider sidewalks in the urban fabric, and developing convenient, attractive and safe walking routes leading to metro stations, primary and secondary schools, parks and other places where there is a large concentration of pedestrians, especially children.” 

Future studies must however be undertaken to explain the range of trends and factors identified in the University of Montreal study. “Why are children from Saskatchewan and Manitoba the most likely to use active transport at a given point in their lives? What about children from poorer backgrounds? Why are there different patterns as children age across socio-demographic and regional lines?” Pabayo asked. “If we can gain a better understanding of the factors that influence how children get to school, we may be able to encourage more families to bike or walk to school, leading to lifelong healthy behaviors.”

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Image: Boys in Brooklyn, 1974, Danny Lyon, National Archives and Record Administration.

seskalee

Not many people outside the province know this, but it’s true that Quebec does not offer secondary school students any specific sexual health education. Very surprising for such a progressive place, isn’t it! The idea is that teachers are supposed to weave it into the regular curriculum. I can already imagine that being a stretch in English (although we all did enjoy Othello) but maths? or physics? Actually, I guess in theory you could get really creative, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in reality.

And it isn’t. All the health statistics you might care to chuck together show that it’s been a mitigated disaster. While you might have seen last week’s Rutherford Mansfield article about research that shows teens look to their parents more than anyone else for sexual role models, society nonetheless obviously has a “safety net” role to play here. If you disagree, you might want to ask the opinion of 15 year old Québécoise - she’s five times more likely to have gonorrhea than a woman over 24.

While we wait for the Government of Quebec to get its act together, check out seskalee's article about an excellent civil society initiative -

Did you know that sex education has been virtually phased out of Quebec high schools since 2005? This is why Head and Hands created The Sense Project: a peer-based sexual health education program in Montreal schools.

Image: This was a newborn with gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum caused by a maternally transmitted gonococcal infection. Unless preventative measures are taken, it is estimated that gonococcal ophthalmia neonatorum will develop in 28% of infants born to women with gonorrhea. It affects the corneal epithelium causing microbial keratitis, ulceration and perforation. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Image Library

Teens look to parents more than friends for sexual role models

The results of a national online study show that 45% of teenagers consider their parents to be their sexuality role model. Shattering stereotypes that parents and society hold about teen sexuality, the survey also revealed that only 32% looked to their friends and just 15% took inspiration from celebrities. Dr. Jean-Yves Frappier, a researcher at the University of Montreal’s affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Centre will be presenting the results at the Canadian Paediatric Society’s 88th Annual Conference on June 18, 2011.

Importantly, the survey also revealed that many of the teenagers who look to their parents live in families where sexuality is openly discussed, and that moreover, teenagers in these families have a greater awareness of the risks and consequences of sexually transmitted infections. “Good communication within families and especially around sexual health issues is associated with more responsible behaviours,” Frappier said.

However, 78% of the mothers who participated in the survey believed that their children modeled their friends’ sexual behaviour, and that a lack of involvement of communication with fathers is especially detrimental. “Parents seem to underestimate their role and the impact that they have,” Frappier noted. “Health professionals and the media have an important role to play in empowering parents and enabling them to increase their communications with their children with regards to sexual health issues.”

The survey involved 1139 mothers of teenagers and 1171 youths between 14 and 17 years of age. The questionnaire touched on topics such as sources of sexual health information, communication about sexual health, family functioning and sexual activities. This study was financed in part by a grant from Merck Frosst Co. The University of Montreal is known officially as Université de Montréal. The Research Centre of the CHU Sainte-Justine is known officially as the Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier universitaire Sainte-Justine.

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Important media note: Dr. Jean-Yves Frappier’s availability for interviews is extremely limited: 09:45-12:30 and 17:00-18:30 on Thursday, June 17, 2011.

For all interviews or for further information, please contact:
William Raillant-Clark
International Press Attaché
University of Montreal (officially Université de Montréal)
Tel: 514-343-7593 | w.raillant-clark@umontreal.ca | @uMontreal_News

Image: Still taken from the movie American Pie, which featured the most well known awkward parent-child sex discussions in recent pop culture history. Image copyright 1999 - Universal Pictures.