Research Summary

Neighborhood context and youth physical activity: Differential associations by gender and age

Modifiable neighborhood elements are shown to have differing influences on children’s physical activity by age and gender

American Journal of Health Promotion

This study examined the extent to which neighborhood contexts influence individual-level physical activity (PA) among children and youth. Explicitly tested were age and gender differences in the relationship between built environment and PA.

Data for this study were obtained from multiple sources, including the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), geographic information systems (GIS), and census tract data for an urban community in Florida. Information gathered by the NHANES is based on a survey about children completed by parent or guardian and medical data (blood work results and measured height and weight). Over a four-year period, NHANES participants (6 years and older) received accelerometers to wear at home for 7 consecutive days. Participants for this study consisted of 2706 youth (aged 6 to 17) with valid physical activity (PA) accelerometer measures.

Census tract data used for this study focused on elements of the modifiable environment relating to density, design, and diversity. This data included not only the number of residents per square mile, but also factors related to land use patterns, the walkability of the neighborhoods, street connectivity and distance to parks.

Findings indicated differences in activity levels varied not only by environmental factors but also by both age and gender. In neighborhoods with greater population density, for example, youth aged 6 to 11 tended to be less physically active, while teens tended to be more physically active. Greater population density was also associated with increased PA among males but not among females. While both children and teens were more physically active where parks were more accessible, increased distance to parks was associated with a decrease in PA for boys but not among girls.

The findings of this study are consistent with past research findings in that neighborhood design dimensions -- such as park access -- have implications for PA among youth. What this study calls attention to is the importance of considering how modifiable neighborhood elements can have differing influences on PA by age and gender. This study, then, supports health promotions that use tailored approaches to modifying neighborhood environments. Recommendations for promoting the PA of children and youth include providing park access and environmental features that are similar to those found in older neighborhoods, such as more tree shade and sidewalks. Park availability was found to be especially beneficial to male teenagers, while elements of older neighborhoods offered special benefits for female teens.