In one of the few studies to look at the link between neighbourhood design and sedentary behaviour among children, the researchers found that features such as parks influenced how much time children spent watching TV and playing computer games.
“Sedentary behaviour is a major contributor to the worldwide childhood obesity epidemic,” said Dr Jenny Veitch, a health researcher with Deakin’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research. “It is therefore essential that we understand whether the neighbourhood environment influences the time children spend in sedentary activities, such sitting at the computer and watching TV, so that we can create the right opportunities to turn this behaviour around.”
In 2004 and 2006 the researchers surveyed 171 parents of nine-year-old children about their perceptions of the neighbourhood environment and the time their children spent watching television, using the computer and playing electronic games. The researchers also carried out an audit of the local public open spaces and objectively measured how sedentary the children were outside of school hours.
Dr Veitch and her colleagues found that time spent in sedentary behaviours and the time spent on the computer and playing electronic games increased significantly between 2004 and 2006.
“We found that the children who lived near large public open spaces that had a water feature, or lived in a cul-de-sac, and whose parents were more satisfied with the quality of the local parks and playgrounds, spent less time watching TV, using the computer and playing electronic games,” Dr Veitch said.
“When we looked at the children’s sedentary behaviours over time we also found that the more satisfied the parents were with the quality of their local public open space in 2004, the less TV the children watched in 2006.”
Dr Veitch said that the study’s results show that neighbourhood design that discourages children’s participation in outdoor physical activity may make sedentary behaviours an easier option.
“These results point to the need for neighbourhoods to be accessible and appealing for kids so that they want to go outside and play rather than stay inside in front of a screen.”
Interestingly, the researchers also found that children who had a walking path in their local park spent more time on the computer and playing electronic games.
“Further research is needed to examine this, however, one possible explanation may be that parents perceive that parks with walking paths may have more ‘strangers’ walking through the park and parents may consider this less safe for children,” Dr Veitch said.
The study, Is the neighbourhood environment associated with sedentary behaviour outside of school hours among children? will be published in this week’s issue of the international journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.