Higher neighborhood greenness is associated with slower increases in children’s body mass.

In the first study to look at the effect of neighborhood greenness on inner city children’s weight over time, researchers report that higher neighborhood greenness is associated with slower increases in children’s body mass over a two-year period, regardless of residential density.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and the University of Washington. It looked at children ages 3 to 18 years whose residence didn’t change over 24 consecutive months. Higher neighborhood greenness was associated with slower increases in body mass index over time, regardless of age, race, or sex. This slowing of body mass index could correspond with reduced risk of child obesity in the long term.

In a novel partnering of health services research and geographic technologies, the researchers used satellite images to identify and measure greenness. Greenness was not simply defined as parks.

“Our research team adapted methods, originally developed for agricultural and forestry research, to estimate greenness in children’s residential environments. These measures are affected by all forms of vegetation that are visible to the satellite and take into consideration not only how much vegetation is present, but how healthy that vegetation is,” said Jeffrey S. Wilson, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the department of geography at IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts.

Childhood obesity is associated with a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertension, sleep apnea, and emotional distress. Over the past 30 years, obesity has doubled in children age 2 to 5 and age 12 to 19 years and has tripled in children between 6 and 11 years of age, according to the Institute of Medicine.

“Obesity is a national epidemic necessitating the involvement of health-care providers, parents, and the community. Our lifestyle makes us sedentary and less healthy. For children, physical activity is active play and that usually take place outdoors. We need to encourage them to go outside and play. I love the idea that we can landscape for health,” said pediatrician Gilbert C. Liu, M.D., senior author of the study.

The study co-authors note that further research is required to understand the mechanisms underlying associations between neighborhood greenness and childhood obesity. “Ideally, this research will be multidisciplinary – involving city planners, architects, geographers, psychologists and public health researchers – and will consider the ways children live and play in urban environments,” they write.