THURSDAY, March 12, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Living close to parks and other play areas may keep children more active and help combat the continued increase in childhood obesity, Canadian researchers report.
For every park found within a half-mile of home, a girl's likelihood of walking to school doubled and a boy's odds of taking part in leisure walking increased by 60 percent, according to the findings, scheduled to be presented at an American Heart Association conference in Palm Harbor, Fla.
"There was a strong association between walking and the number of nearby public open recreational spaces, including neighborhood parks, playgrounds and sports fields," the study's lead author, Tracie A. Barnett, a researcher at Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Center and Université de Montréal in Canada, said in a news release issued by the Heart Association. "We were able to relate the proximity and number of parks to how often children aged 8 to 10 years walked."
The finding "is important because active transportation is a promising public health strategy for increasing overall physical activity, and for helping to curb the obesity epidemic," she said.
Data for the study came from 300 families and more than 600 children participating in a study of weight and cardiometabolic risk in kids. Children in the study were all considered at a high risk for obesity because at least one parent already was obese. The researchers said that the findings were consistent even when factoring in family income and average level of education in the neighborhood, a measure of economic advantage.
Childhood and adolescent obesity increased three-fold in the past two decades, a rapid climb that Barnett said is thought to be more environmental than biological.
"In the past few decades, we have become more sedentary due to the increased use of labor-saving devices, motorized transportation, television and computers," she said. "In addition, children are spending more time inside, yet we know that spending time outdoors is an important determinant of activity. In future urban improvements, consideration must be given to parks, outdoor recreational areas and walking or cycling infrastructure in order to increase active living. Equally important is that the parks and recreational areas are well maintained and are safe."
The researchers plan to continue following the participant families for the next decade, or until the children turn 18, to measure how environment affects their weight.
According to an American Heart Association statement issued in June, "walkable" neighborhoods -- featuring sidewalks and places for physical activity -- can make it easier for people to get daily exercise and can help fight the climbing obesity rates.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about childhood obesity.