Independent mobility describes the freedom of children to travel and play in public spaces without adult supervision. The potential benefits for children are significant such as social interactions with peers, spatial and traffic safety skills and increased physical activity. Yet, the health benefits of independent mobility, particularly on physical activity accumulation, are largely unexplored. This study aimed to investigate associations of children’s independent mobility with light, moderate-to-vigorous, and total physical activity accumulation.
In 2011 – 2012, 375 Australian children aged 8-13 years (62% girls) were recruited into a cross-sectional study. Children’s independent mobility (i.e. independent travel to school and non-school destinations, independent outdoor play) and socio-demographics were assessed through child and parent surveys. Physical activity intensity was measured objectively through an Actiheart monitor worn on four consecutive days. Associations between independent mobility and physical activity variables were analysed using generalized linear models, accounting for clustered sampling, Actiheart wear time, socio-demographics, and assessing interactions by sex.
Independent travel (walking, cycling, public transport) to school and non-school destinations were not associated with light, moderate-to-vigorous and total physical activity. However, sub-analyses revealed a positive association between independent walking and cycling (excluding public transport) to school and total physical but only in boys (b = 36.03, p < 0.05). Frequent independent outdoor play (three or more days per week) was positively associated with light and total physical activity (b = 29.76, p < 0.01 and b = 32.43, p = 0.03, respectively). No significant associations were found between independent outdoor play and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. When assessing differences by sex, the observed significant associations of independent outdoor play with light and total physical activity remained in girls but not in boys. All other associations showed no significant differences by sex.
Independent outdoor play may boost children’s daily physical activity levels, predominantly at light intensity. Hence, facilitating independent outdoor play could be a viable intervention strategy to enhance physical activity in children, particularly in girls. Associations between independent travel and physical activity are inconsistent overall and require further investigation.