The number of overweight and obese children in the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, prompting health experts to search for clues as to how American children have gotten so fat. Some research has indicated that unsafe neighborhoods could contribute to childhood obesity because when kids and parents don't feel safe, they're not likely to play outside. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia and Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, New Jersey, studied the relationship between neighborhood safety, obesity, and children's outdoor play.
In this study, 3,326 mothers from 20 large U.S. cities in 15 states completed surveys shortly after giving birth and again when their children were 3 years old. When the children were 3, the moms noted how many hours a day their children played outside and how much time the children spent watching TV daily. The moms also answered questions about neighborhood safety, such as how often they saw loitering adults, drunks or drug dealers, or misbehaving groups of youth or adults in the neighborhood. In addition, 2,620 of the children in the study had their heights and weights measured during in-home interviews so the researchers could calculate body mass index.
Overall, 18% of the children were obese, and two thirds of the children in the study watched more than 2 hours of TV a day. Children in neighborhoods their moms rated to be the least safe weren't more likely to be obese or to play outside less than kids in safer neighborhoods, but they were likely to watch more TV. Children who lived in the least safe neighborhoods watched about 10% more TV than children who lived in the safest neighborhoods.
What This Means to You: Although the results of this study did not find a direct link between the safety of a child's neighborhood and his or her risk of obesity, they suggest a possible link between TV watching and neighborhood safety. An early habit of too much TV - combined with an unsafe neighborhood that makes parents fearful to let their kids play outside - could affect the amount of physical activity that a child gets and contribute to the development of obesity later in childhood or adolescence.
Encourage your child to get regular outdoor playtime, and if you have concerns about the safety of your neighborhood, seek out options for safe indoor play, such as community centers and parks. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 2 shouldn't watch TV at all, and after that age, kids shouldn't watch more than an hour or 2 a day.
Source: Hillary L. Burdette, MD; Robert C. Whitaker, MD, MPH; Pediatrics, September 2005
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2005