Places to Play: Association of Park Space and Facilities With Healthy Weight Status Among Children

Luke R. Potwarka; Andrew T. Kaczynski; Andrea L. Flack


J Community Health. 2008;33(5):344-350. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The purpose of this study was to examine how healthy weight status among youth was related to (i) three proximity-based park variables: number of parks within 1 km of home, total area of parkland within 1 km, and distance to the closest park from home, and (ii) the availability of 13 specific park facilities within 1 km of the home. Data were collected from parents of children living in four neighborhoods of a medium-sized Canadian city. Logistic regression analyses revealed that none of the three proximity-based park variables was significantly associated with healthy weight status among children in the sample. However, when availability of the 13 park facilities was examined, children with a park playground within 1 km were almost five times more likely to be classified as being of a healthy weight rather then at risk or overweight compared to those children without playgrounds in nearby parks. Results suggest that availability of certain park facilities may play a more important role in promoting physical activity and healthy weight status among children than availability of park space in general. Implications for park design are discussed.


The prevalence of childhood obesity is becoming a growing public health concern. Reported rates of obesity among North American children typically range from 20% to 35%.[1] Childhood obesity has been linked to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, and high correlations among childhood and later adult life obesity have been well documented.[2,3,4] As such, community health officials are now seeking innovative strategies to address sedentary behaviors and promote increased physical activity levels among youth populations.

Physical activity is hypothesized to protect children from the development of obesity by increasing energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate, which can improve fuel utilization.[5] The beneficial effect of physical activity in children on the incidence of obesity is supported by the results of several controlled exercise intervention programs.[5] Moreover, researchers have argued that policy changes, environmental planning, educational efforts, and increased opportunities and encouragement for physical activity will serve to increase activity levels among youth populations.[1,5]

In keeping with this notion, several researchers are now advocating the use of social ecological models to understand and facilitate health behavior change.[6,7] Specifically, social ecological models put forward the idea that multiple levels of factors influence health behaviors, and that multiple fields and sectors should work together to bring about desired population-level behavior change.[6] For example, McLeroy et al.[8] proposed five levels of factors in their ecological model (i.e., intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational or institutional, community, and public policy), and Sallis et al.[7] describe how the perspectives of diverse disciplines can be valuable in creating active living communities.

In social ecological research on physical activity and obesity, the concept of "behavior settings" is particularly valuable. Behavior settings represent the physical and/or social contexts in which a particular behavior occurs.[9] With respect to physical activity, some of these environments include streets, parks, trails, recreation facilities, and school properties, which can impede or facilitate activity depending on their accessibility and design.[10] Indeed, several studies have examined how these elements of the built environment can influence activity levels of community members. For instance, research has shown that compared to curvilinear streets and cul-de-sacs, streets laid-out in grid-like patterns are more conducive to physical activity because they permit more direct travel, and more diverse routes can be taken each trip.[11] In addition to street design, other reviews of the literature have found fairly consistent positive associations between physical activity and other factors in the built environment such as access to facilities, safety, and aesthetics.[12,13,14]

In recent years, both conceptual and empirical research has acknowledged the potential of parks as important elements of the built environment for promoting childhood physical activity and reductions in the prevalence of childhood obesity.[15,16,17,18,19] However, to date, relatively few studies of the influence of parks on physical activity and childhood obesity have examined youth populations.[20] Nevertheless, to the extent that parks contribute to opportunities for increased physical activity, it is reasonable to argue that children living in closer proximity to such open spaces and related facilities should demonstrate lower levels of overweight. Thus, our purpose was to examine how healthy weight status among youth was related to (i) three proximity-based park variables: number of parks within 1 km of home, total area of parkland within 1 km, and distance to the closest park from home, and (ii) the availability of 13 specific park facilities within 1 km of home.


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