UW News

November 6, 2008

Green neighborhoods may reduce childhood obesity

Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

As obesity rates continue to rise in the United States — and related health care costs — UW researchers continue to offer findings that may offer some possible solutions, or explanations. The latest study comes from Dr. Janice Bell, lead author and assistant professor of Health Services in the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

Bell’s study, a multidisciplinary effort with researchers in geography and pediatrics from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the Indiana University School of Medicine, focused on 3,800 children and youth aged 3 to 16 years who lived at the same address in Marion County, Ind., for 24 consecutive months. The children were predominantly African-American and poor. Using satellite imaging data to measure vegetation coverage, investigators found that higher greenness was significantly associated with lower body mass index changes in those children.

Bell said the study is noteworthy because it was longitudinal, meaning researchers followed the children over a lengthy period of time. The results are also different than previous studies that focused on adults. In adult-centric studies, neighborhoods that offer “walkable” environments are important to lower body weight. But Bell and her colleagues found that the residential density variable — defined as the number of housing units per acre of residential land use — wasn’t significant in this particular study. “Something else is going on,” she said. “The bottom line is that things that work for adults don’t necessarily work for children.”

Investigators want to repeat their work in other settings to determine if the results are site-, or Indiana-specific. Cities they’d like to study include Boston and Nashville, locations in a New England state and Florida, and they hope to tap into national data that already exists, said Bell. This recent study will appear in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.