Researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute have found that children who live in a favorable neighborhood environment — one with parks and access to healthy food — had 59 percent lower odds of being obese.
Led by Brian Saelens, Ph.D., the study, which appeared in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is one of the first neighborhood environment studies to look at a combination of nutrition and physical activity environments and assess children as well as their parents.
It also used objective geographic information system (GIS) data to examine the physical activity and healthy food options of a neighborhood related to obesity.
Researchers used that GIS data to assess neighborhoods in the Seattle and San Diego areas. Nutrition environments were defined based on supermarket availability and concentration of fast food restaurants. Physical activity environments were defined based on environmental factors related to neighborhood walkability and at least one park with more or better amenities for children.
The researchers found that kids who lived in neighborhoods that were poorer in physical activity and nutrition environment had the highest rates of obesity — almost 16 percent, which is similar to the national average.
Only 8 percent of children were obese in neighborhoods where physical activity and nutrition environments were positive.
“People think of childhood obesity and immediately think about an individual’s physical activity and nutrition behaviors, but they do not necessarily equate obesity with where people live,” said Saelens, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. “Everyone from parents to policymakers should pay more attention to zip codes because they could have a big impact on weight.”
National health organizations have identified neighborhood environment as important factors in childhood obesity, including the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the researcher noted.
“Our data support recommendations from these groups that we need to change our environments to make them more supportive of physical activity and nutrition,” said Saelens.