Childhood Obesity and Proximity to Urban Parks and Recreational Resources: A Longitudinal Cohort Study

How to cite this study

Wolch, J., Jerrett, M., Reynolds, K., McConnell, R., Chang, R., Dahmann, N., Brady, K., Gilliland, F., Su, J.G. and Berhane, K., 2011. Childhood obesity and proximity to urban parks and recreational resources: a longitudinal cohort study. Health & Place 17(1): 207-214.


By following a large sample of children over time, this study demonstrates that children who participate in recreation programs, or who live a walkable distance from parks, are much less likely to be obese or overweight. These benefits can be achieved through formal parks and programs, but also through accessible green space or other small, informal places that encourage informal play.


This research is relevant for those interested in the health implications of offering public recreation programs targeting children, whether through schools, recreation centers, or parks.

This study is unique in that it follows individual children over time to see how changes in access to recreation facilities affects changes in body mass index (BMI). This approach results in highly reliable results, overcoming potential bias that affects cross-section studies that only take a snapshot in time.


The study includes children in 96 municipalities in southern California, mostly in Los Angeles County.

Trail Type

This study includes any public venue that offers public recreation programs targeted to people 18 and younger. The programs had to be exercise-based, with exertion equivalent to moderate walking or greater.


The purpose of this study is to measure the relationship between childhood obesity and recreation programs. This is one of the first studies to make the connection between childhood obesity and parks, and the only one we are aware of that has followed children over time to better assess health impacts.


  • Children who live within 500 meters of a park had a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) at age 18, with larger effects for boys than for girls.
  • When children have access to recreation programs within 10 kilometers of their home, 8-9 percent move from overweight to normal weight, and 2-3 percent move from obese to overweight.
  • The obesity prevention benefits are not just limited to formal recreation programs. Additional green cover, parkways, and trees that encourage play have as strong an effect on BMI as does new parkland.
  • The benefits of access to parks and recreation programs is nearly eliminated if nearby residents cannot walk to parks due to heavy traffic or busy road networks in residential areas.


This study followed 3,173 children ages 9-10, collecting information on health, physical activity, household characteristics, and environmental characteristics for eight years.

The authors matched the children’s addresses to a database of parks, schools, and recreation facilities to determine their access to parks. Parks within 500 meters of a child’s home were modeled, along with the type and availability of recreational programs. The authors control for socioeconomic characteristics of children’s communities, including poverty, unemployment, race, and crime rates.

The authors used statistical models to estimate how well the availability of recreational programs affects the change in children’s body mass index (BMI) over time.

Added to library on January 10, 2018