More green space in urban areas means better health behaviours for children
The Sector > Research > More green space in urban areas means better health behaviours for children

More green space in urban areas means better health behaviours for children

by Freya Lucas

July 27, 2022

Urban areas with more vegetation, lower density of buildings and facilities, lower population density and without major roads are associated with better health behaviors in children, a study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has found. 


Specifically, the study found that children who live surrounded by more natural spaces are more physically active, spend less time doing sedentary activities, get more hours of sleep and are more likely to walk or cycle to school.


Researchers assessed the association between a wide range of urban environmental characteristics and healthy habits in 1,581 children aged between six and eleven years from six European cohorts in an effort to reflect growing interest in investigating how the urban environment contributes to unhealthy behaviours in children and whether a change in urban design could help to promote healthier lifestyles.


To perform the analysis, the researchers estimated exposure to 32 characteristics of the urban environment near the children’s homes and schools, including traffic density on the nearest road and the presence of green spaces or blue spaces (beaches, rivers, lakes, etc.). 


They also collected information on the children’s healthy habits, including the total amount of time spent doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, physical activity outside of school hours, active transport (walking, cycling, etc.) and sedentary activities, as well as sleep duration. A multiple-exposure model was developed using these data.


Active transport – such as walking or cycling – and time spent doing sedentary activities decreased in places where children were exposed to more green space. 


“Our evidence reinforces the need to prioritise urban design to improve health-promoting behaviours in children and prevent ill health in adults,” Martine Vrijheid, head of ISGlobal’s Childhood and Environment program and last author of the study said. 


“Public health interventions tend to focus on influencing individual behaviors rather than tackling the broader system determinants that drive these behaviors and widen health inequalities.”


One simple strategy, she continued, should be to increase the number of green spaces and the amount of vegetation in the streets.


“We need further research that includes other urban indicators that may be relevant for the behavior of children and adolescents, such as pedestrian zones and sport facilities (for example, ping-pong tables, volleyball courts, etc.), and which looks at more countries and less-studied areas in order to better assess how changes in the urban environment affect people’s lifestyles,” she added.


A large percentage of the children included in the study (63.6 per cent) did not meet the current recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (at least 60 minutes per day) and 58.6 per cent spent more than two hours per day watching television or playing computer or video games. 


In addition, active transport was low, with children spending an average of 6.9 minutes per day traveling from home to school.


To access the findings in full, please see here

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