Monday, September 12, 2005

Obesity and preschoolers

When we moved from the Columbia Heights neighborhood in DC to an inner suburb of Boston two years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about playgrounds. One thing I noticed in Columbia Heights was that fear of violence really didn't keep children indoors. Random violence and stray bullets were memorable and terrible but rare, and so unpredictable that countermeasures didn't matter much. Violent muggings happened disproportionately at night and were not a major deterrent to outdoor play during the day. Even the drug and prostitution trades were so predictable and quiet on 19 days out of 20 that families with children were happy to walk right on by with a polite nod. One couldn't let young children play outdoors without adult supervision, but that is true in most suburban and urban areas these days. Broken glass and the smell of urine in local playgrounds made a bigger difference in hindering our children's outdoor play than fear of violence did. I notice their absence every time I take my children out in our neighborhood today.

So, I am less surprised than some folks may be at the conclusion of this month's study in Pediatrics by Hillary Burdette and Robert C. Whitaker: "A National Study of Neighborhood Safety, Outdoor Play, Television Viewing, and Obesity in Preschool Children." From the press release from their employer, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.:

Do preschool children have a higher prevalence of obesity, spend less time playing outdoors, and spend more time watching television when they live in a neighborhood that their mothers perceive as unsafe? This study of three-year-olds in 20 U.S. cities found that if mothers perceive their neighborhood as unsafe, their children tend to watch more television, but they are no more likely to be obese and do not spend any less time playing outdoors than children in safer neighborhoods. Researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a birth cohort study of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large U.S. cities from 1998 to 2000.

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