Low-income children may be overweight in part because they have less access to open green space where they can play and exercise, reports a Cornell study of obesity in Europe published in Social Science and Medicine (December 2012; Vol. 75).
In the world’s richest nations, growing up poor is linked to an increased risk of childhood obesity, putting disadvantaged children at higher risk for a lifetime of obesity and a host of diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life. One reason for this association may be inequities in access to green space, which, in turn, affect children’s level of physical activity, the study found.
This is the first study to test the full model of the relationships among income, green space, physical activity and body mass index (BMI), the authors said.
The team analyzed data from a survey of European housing and health status that included 1,184 children, from 6 to 18 years of age, in eight European cities. The survey collected information on income, child body weight, height and physical activity, and observer ratings of open green space.
The researchers found that lower income children were more likely to live in neighborhoods with less open green space and that this correlated with reduced physical activity and higher BMI.
“Although our study suggests that children’s differential access to space for outdoor physical activity plays some role in the prevalence of obesity, this is a very complex problem with multiple causes,” said lead author Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.
“It is important to take an ecological perspective in thinking about the challenge of childhood obesity,” he added. “The environment, personality, culture, stress, family history and economics likely all play an important role.”
“Given mounting evidence that adult obesity is rooted in child biology and experience, it behooves us to better understand who, where and how people and their surroundings coalesce to influence the probability of being overweight,” he said.
Evans conducted the study with McKenzie Jones-Rounds, Ph.D. ’12; Goran Belojevic, Fulbright scholar and professor of medicine at the University of Belgrade; and Francoise Vermeylen, statistical consultant in the College of Human Ecology.
The research was made possible by the Fulbright Scholar Program and by the Large Analysis and Review of European Housing and Health Status (LARES), conducted by the World Health Organization.
Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.