The more parks and recreation areas near their homes, the more likely Generation Z children will be physically active, says a Canadian study examining exercise and park locations. When parks were located near their homes, boys were more likely to engage in outdoor leisure activities, while girls were more likely to walk to school. For every additional park located within a half mile of their homes, the likelihood of walking to school more than doubled among girls, and boys were more likely to participate in leisure walking by an additional 60 percent.
Even after controlling for factors like household income and the average educational level of the neighborhood residents, both of which are indicators of area conditions, the researchers found that the results remained significant.
The study, which focused on kids that were at a high risk for obesity, was conducted by members of TEAM PRODIGY, an inter-university research team including Université de Montréal, Concordia University, Université Laval, McGill University and INRS-Institut Armand Frappier.
The connection between walkable communities and physical activity is significant, say researchers. “There was a strong association between walking and the number of nearby public open recreational spaces, including neighborhood parks, playgrounds and sports fields,” said Tracie A. Barnett, Ph.D., lead author of the study, in a public statement.
“We were able to relate the proximity and number of parks to how often children aged 8 to 10 years walked. This is important because active transportation is a promising public health strategy for increasing overall physical activity, and for helping to curb the obesity epidemic,” Barnett explained. “We know that walking to school has been decreasing steadily for the past 30 years; concurrent increases in overweight and obesity suggest that these two phenomena may be linked.”
Is the obesity crisis as profound in Canada as it is in the United States, often cited as the fattest country in the world? “Obesity is just as much of a problem in Canada as it is in the USA,” Canada-based certified trainers Uche and Kary Odiatu says. “Our numbers aren’t as quite as high overall.”
“Obesity in children and adolescents has tripled in the past 20 or so years,” Barnett said publicly. “Although obesity has many causes, this relatively sudden and steep increase suggests that the drivers of the obesity epidemic are largely environmental rather than biological or genetic in nature.”
Barnett added that in recent decades the use of labor-saving devices and increased use of motorized transportation, as well as the amount of time children have been spending indoors, have all contributed to rising obesity rates. “We know that spending time outdoors is an important determinant of activity,” she noted.
The children had been deemed at a high-risk for future obesity because they had at least one parent who was clinically obese, and were part of a program called the Quebec Adipose and Lifestyle Investigation in Youth (QUALITY) study in which researchers are following over 600 children and both biological parents to study the natural history of excess weight and cardiometabolic risk in children. The results of this study are based on the first 300 families enrolled in the program.
The Odiatus, co-authors of The Miracle of Health, are pleased that this research is being conducted. “Any articles that expose new ways to get help moving toward solutions are welcome in our eye,” they add. “So many pieces talk about the problem and who to blame.”
They are pleased that the research focuses on practical solutions to the obesity crisis. “Good business practices in the corporate world have meetings that focus only ten percent of the meeting on the problem and 90 percent of the time on the solution,” they add.
Barnett maintains that urban planning should increase opportunity for physical activity and prioritize safety. “In future urban improvements, consideration must be given to parks, outdoor recreational areas and walking or cycling infrastructure in order to increase active living,” Barnett said. “Equally important is that the parks and recreational areas are well maintained and are safe.”
Having safe parks closer to home would hopefully quiet parents’ concerns about potential dangers, the Odiatus contend. “Having more parks closer to home is a good solution to parents who say, ‘I would rather have a fat kid than a dead kid.’”