This comes from a recent report released by Dr. Wendy Young, Memorial University’s Canada Research Chair in Healthy Aging.
With funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Young and her team studied a large population of Grade 7 children in Halton, Ont. They looked at the association between body mass index (BMI) and modifiable individual-level risks (such as physical activity and nutrition); modifiable environmental risk factors (such as environments that are human modified, including homes, schools, workplaces and location of physical activity and nutritional environments); and neighbourhood education levels.
“If you look at the federal government’s national dialogue on healthy weights the ministers of health have just launched [Our Health Our Future: A National Dialogue on Healthy Weights], this kind of research is essential to the dialogue they’re inviting on actions we need to take to ensure healthy weights for Canadians,” said Dr. Young. “They see this kind of dialogue as a key step in curbing childhood obesity.”
Dr. Young wrote the report after the Region of Halton decided to take action to reduce childhood obesity, which according to researchers is now an epidemic.
Halton created the Healthy Weights: Halton Takes Action initiative, and started to plan changes to their environment such as developing walkable and bikeable communities and increasing the availability of healthy food choices.
But they wanted to know if these changes would make a difference. If communities make it easier for children and their families to make healthy choices, would fewer people become obese? And which healthy choices matter the most? To answer these questions, the Halton Region Health Department partnered with Dr. Young to better see how physical and nutritional environments affect healthy weights.
Using survey data from Halton’s Our Kids Network collected in 2006, Dr. Young and her team concluded that socio-economic status and an active lifestyle were still the most powerful predictors of healthy weight in children. Poverty had a negative impact on children’s weight. Meanwhile, eating breakfast helped a child maintain a healthy weight. The amount of time spent in front of an electronic screen also mattered.
The most significant predictor of lower BMI levels in the Grade 7 children, however, was their active lifestyle score – a combined score of physical activity, lower screen time, and eating breakfast regardless of socio-economic status or the sex of the student. However, BMI for girls was significantly lower than for boys (10.4 per cent of girls were overweight or obese, compared to 17.6 per cent of boys surveyed).
However, students who lived in a walkable neighbourhood were not more likely to have an active lifestyle than other students. As well, students who lived close to a fruit and vegetable store were not more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and fruit and vegetable consumption was also not associated with BMI.
But Dr. Young admits there are some limitations with this study. “For example, the uniformity of Halton neighbourhoods and that fact that most families have a car could explain some of these unexpected results.
“Also, our measurements of the built environment are based on adult concepts that may not apply to children. For example, it’s unlikely that increasing access to sidewalks to shopping, postal services, and legal services reflect destinations of 12-year-olds and would increase their physical activity,” explained Dr. Young. “Walkability, or the way the environment facilitates getting places on foot, may be less important for children than playability. In addition, the data was self-reported so the children may not have accurately reported their height and weight, physical activity or fruit and vegetable consumption.”
Dr. Young worked with Drs. Alvin Simms, Geography, and Veeresh Gadag, Mathematics and Statistics, also from Memorial, several researchers from Halton, as well as Dr. Sara Kirk, Canada Research Chair from Dalhousie University.
To view the full report, please visit www.mun.ca/nursing/about_us/FINAL_REPORT_HALTON_July_2011.pdf.
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For more information, please contact Michelle Osmond, communications co-ordinator, School of Nursing, Memorial University, at 709-777-2165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.