• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 17th March, 2009

Chase the pavement to a fitter neighborhood

US research has uncovered a strong connection among fifth graders, between feelings of safety in their home neighborhoods, parents’ sense of social connectedness and positive health outcomes. Luisa Franzini at the University of Texas School of Public Health and colleagues from universities in three US cities are among a small group of researchers who have tried to unpick the links between physical and social aspects of a neighborhood environment and children’s health. Writing in the American Journal of Public Health, they say that although physical features of the environment have an impact on behavior, the connections between social features and physical exercise are stronger – and in turn have an effect on children’s weight. Their reasoning continues: children of parents who report greater social ties with their neighbors and who note the presence of a network of neighbors are more likely to engage in physical activity. Those children are less likely to be obese. Less influential but nevertheless still important, says Franzini, are the physical characteristics of the neighborhood. Previous research has shown, for example, that people living in areas where there is a mix of residential and commercial buildings are likely to be more active because shops and other facilities are located within walking distance. People are less likely to walk or cycle if there are no sidewalks or pavements and road traffic volumes are high. She writes that the impact of the physical environment may be less marked in her study because children’s exposure is determined primarily by parents’ decisions. Those decisions are more affected by how socially connected they feel to other neighborhood residents than by how many sidewalks they are. Hers is one of only a handful of investigations of the social aspects of neighborhood and their influence on child health and behavior. It is also unusual for researchers to use multiple measures of physical and social neighborhood characteristics.She acknowledges that designing policies and interventions that make adolescents more healthy and take into account the range of environmental factors may be easier said than done. Creating the conditions for social connectedness or cohesion entails reducing inequalities, disadvantage and segregation between communities – a tall order. Data came from Phase 1 of US Healthy Passages study – the pilot for a by now well established longitudinal study that routinely collects information on the health-related behaviors of children and their parents in California, Texas and Alabama. Twenty-one schools were randomly selected to participate and all fifth-grade children (age 11) within each school were eligible. A total of 650 families took part across the three research sites. Characteristics of the physical environment were measured via independent systematic observations. The social environment, as well as a range of other information, were assessed using standardized surveys and interviews with parents. Children’s physical activity, height and weight were assessed in interviews.See Franzini L et al (2009) “Influences of Physical and Social Neighborhood Environments on Children’s Physical Activity and Obesity,” American Journal of Public Health, 99, pp 271-278 and Windle M et al (2004) “Healthy Passages: A multilevel, multimethod longitudinal study of adolescent health,” American Journal of Public Health, 27, 164-172[See also: How disadvantaged you feel hurts children more than poverty]

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