A longitudinal study of environmental determinants of overweight among children: the SHAPEs of things to come


Principal Investigator: Spence, John C. (University of Alberta)

Co-Investigators: Ball, Geoff D. C. (University of Alberta); Boule, Normand (University of Alberta); Frank, Lawrence D. (University of British Columbia); Predy, Gerald N. (Capital Health); Veugelers, Paul J. (University of Alberta).
This project is funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

1. The research question 

A quarter of young Canadian children is overweight or obese. These rates have increased over the past decade and will continue to rise in the future if the causes are not addressed. Though once considered an adult problem, obesity in children is associated with lower quality of life and greater risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease down the road. We know that an imbalance in the amount of calories consumed (dietary intake) in relation to the calories burned through work and play (physical activity) are the most immediate causes of overweight and obesity. However, there is a host of factors that influence dietary intake and physical activity. For instance, the built environment (e.g., the way neighbourhoods are designed; access to fast-food restaurants) has recently been associated with obesity amongst adults. But very little research has been conducted with children and even less is known about how the environment is related to changes in body weight over time. For us to claim that the built environment is a cause of obesity, we need evidence from longitudinal studies (changes over time) and experimental studies; no such evidence currently exists. If a link between the built environment and childhood overweight and obesity is found, then opportunities for interventions and policy can be identified.

2. The objective

Our goal is to determine if aspects of the built environment (e.g., neighbourhood design, access to facilities) are linked to changes in weight or changes in physical activity and/or diet among a large sample of young children in Edmonton, Alberta.

3. The approach

We have previously recruited 2,000 children and their parents who agreed to participate in future research. We measured the height and weight of the children and the parents reported on their physical activity, dietary intake and habits, and sedentary behaviour.
In this study, we will assess the same criteria in physical fitness and dietary behaviour for both the children and the parents. We will also survey the parents on their education, household income, and perceptions of the neighbourhood where they live.
In our data analysis, we will determine if the children's weight is linked to their behaviour (physical activity, dietary intake, sedentary behaviour) or the characteristics of the neighbourhood where they live.

4. The unique factors

1) A large sample of children who were previously recruited through health clinics in Edmonton. 
2) A longitudinal/prospective design to study the role of the built environment in childhood obesity.
3) Actual measures of physical fitness and body weight. This type of data is rarely collected in studies with large samples of children. 
4) The link between weight and behaviour of children and their parents and actual measures of the built environment. Data on the built environment have already been collected in the past two years.

5. How the project is relevant to the objectives of the initiative

We will study the role of the built environment in physical activity, nutrition, sedentary behaviour, and overweight/obesity among a large sample of children.
We have recruited several community organizations as well as Dr. Gerry Predy, a policy maker, on the research team; and adopted a knowledge translation plan to ensure that our work will be relevant to policy development.