Exploring the Relationship Between Child Movement and BMI

Since its commencement, PARCS has been focusing on the relationship between physical and overall wellbeing and built environment among adults. This spring, we expanded our focus and began working with children as well, conducting similar measures on activity and adding a component to track sleep, to gain a more comprehensive view of movement across a full 24-hour period. A recent study published by Pennington Biomedical Research Center explored this 24-hour cycle as well, by analyzing the relationships between physical activity and amount of sleep with BMI to gauge the relationship between overall daily movement and weight.

The Pennington Study included a sample of 357 White and African American children aged 5-18 from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Measurements were taken on physical activity, amount of TV viewing, and sleep duration via questionnaires. Height and weight were also measured to calculate participants’ BMIs. Activity levels were compared against current 24-hour movement guidelines for physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep.

Source: NEA Healthy Futures
Source: Verywell.com









This study provided a few interesting results. Researchers found that meeting each of these guidelines was significantly associated with lower body fat mass and BMI. Additionally, the more guidelines that were met, the greater these decreases in body mass were. For children who reached guidelines of all three measures, their odds were 89% lower than those who met none of the guidelines. The odds were 40% and 24% for children who reached two or just one of these guidelines, respectively.

This led the researchers to conclude that physical activity is not the only contributor to achieving a lower BMI, and that sedentary time and quality of sleep are also important measures to focus on. They wrote: “This work suggests that interventions that target multiple lifestyle behaviours may have a potent effect on levels obesity and overweight in children.”

Although BMI is not a specific outcome of interest for the PARCS study, these findings are still important and relevant to us. This study showed that increased physical activity and amount of sleep lead to improved health outcomes. Frequency of physical activity typically increases when children have access to safe, clean outdoor spaces. By building and sustaining robust outdoor spaces, we can positively impact levels of obesity and overweight in children.

PARCS is on Facebook!

The team at PARCS greatly values insights from our participants and their communities. In order to deepen and continue conversation and engagement outside of our direct work, we are launching a platform on Facebook to speak directly to our audience. We aim to learn through their feedback, as well as share our message and communicate the value of “purpose-built communities” that we strive to support. See below for our entry post, and head over to our new page for more updates!


At PARCS, we are dedicated to understanding the relationship between a community’s built environment and resident health. Years of research have shown connections between environmental characteristics and resources, and residents’ physical and mental well-being. We seek to understand connection this by working directly with residents in communities across all five New York City boroughs, and gaining insights into their opinions and attitudes on their surrounding environment, as well as their physical activity and use of the space. Our goals in this work is to determine what makes a beneficial environment, and how these insights can be translated into developing purpose-built communities.

A purpose-built community is one where all community members work together to accomplish a shared goal that will better the lives of individuals within that area. There are four necessary components of a purpose-built community, including:


  • Collective efficacy: the overarching attitude and belief that by working together, people can make a positive difference.
  • Development and use of available assets: this includes tangible assets such as financial and facility resources, and intangible assets, including shared values and beliefs.
  • Agreed-upon process: these processes will create an order and structured path toward achieving the groups’ goals, and determine which members are responsible for which tasks.
  • Defining a shared goal that matters to all community members: this is an extremely important element, as a purpose-built community is most impactful if it’s efforts benefit the neighborhood as a whole.


We would like this page to serve as both a resource with information on how to promote purpose-built communities, and as a forum for readers to share their experiences, ask questions, and post suggestions. We hope that you will benefit from the postings and dialogue on this page. Just as with purpose-built communities, we will all benefit from sharing our thoughts and goals with one another!

-PARCS Study Team

Improving Social Equity Through Urban Design

Poorly thought-out urban design is not only a detriment to the health of residents, as we have discussed in-depth on this blog, but it is also a key driver of social inequity in cities. One organization attempting to reverse this trend is the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge, or SPARCC. The coalition has committed to spending $90 million over the next three years to help communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Memphis, and Atlanta address the urban design factors that cause social and health inequalities.

SPARCC states that the first step toward achieving their mission is increasing collaboration across public and private sectors, and community members. By working with a range of health organizations, SPARCC will have access to different knowledge, resources, and strategies. Community engagement will lead to key insights about the communities’ beliefs, values, and needs, that will inform the most appropriate and impactful interventions. To build these networks, SPARCC starts by identifying agencies and organizations in their target communities and reaching out to form partnerships. By increasing their size and domain, SPARCC and their partners have a greater chance of influencing policymakers and city planners.

An example of SPARCC’s initiatives is their collaboration with the Transportation Alliance in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta currently ranks second in the United States for income inequality. A key driver of this is the amount of annual income that goes toward transportation, as only 3.4% of jobs in the city are accessible by a 45-minute or less commute. SPARCC is working with the Transportation Alliance to develop new affordable housing, clinics near train stations, and building new transit lines in areas with low access.

Atlanta Photo 2

Photo: courtesy SPARCC

SPARCC has large goals for transforming and enhancing the structures in their selected cities, and ultimately reducing the large social inequalities that exist today. While their work will need to be continued long after the three-year initiative ends, they are building a vital framework to support forward progression. By creating and nurturing strong relationships with community organizations, policymakers, and other stakeholders, SPARCC will leave behind a strong network that can continue to push for change in urban design, and improved health and social justice.

A Joint Call to Action: Coming Together to Improve Community Health

An individual’s health is directly influenced by his or her surrounding environment. Research has shown that environmental characteristics are linked with many chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. These structures also impact individuals’ mental health, as built environment is associated with depression and anxiety. These negative impacts disproportionately impact lower-income communities, which often have limited access to fresh healthy foods, safe outdoor spaces for exercise and community gathering, and increased prevalence of environmental pollutants.

To combat this problem and promote healthier communities, many large health agencies in the United States pledged to support the Joint Call to Action, a partnership between public health and environmental practitioners. Organizations including the American Public Health Association, the American Institute of Architects, and the National Recreation and Park Association, will work together to reduce the health threats associated with weak environmental structures, and the inequities across communities. To accomplish this mission, the organizations determined the following necessary steps:

  • Build Relationships
    • The first step toward building smarter, health-promoting environments is to solidify strong partnerships between public health professionals, design leaders, and community organizations. This collaboration will lead to an understanding of community needs, and advanced knowledge to inform interventions.
  • Establish Health Goals
    • To effectively track progress and ensure goals are met, the groups must consult existing health data, create metrics for resident well-being, and develop methods to measure health outcomes upon program completion.
  • Implement Strategies to Improve Health
    • Organizations need to advocate for and adopt policies that promote population health. They must also implement plans and developments that will improve opportunities for healthy foods, and safe physical environments for exercise and community gathering.
  • Share Expertise
    • Disseminating information is key to educate other organizations on successful methods, and maintain a bond with the community by keeping open lines of communication. Organizations should share their efforts and results as much as possible to learn from each other and build off past successes.

The partnering organizations in the Joint Call to Action have a detailed plan that will help them reach their goal of improving health in communities. The steps they outlined can be applied to all health organizations, big and small. At PARCS, we invest in our partnership with the NYC Parks Department to share expertise and maximize success, and we collaborate with community centers and leaders across all five boroughs, to ensure that we understand their values and work toward a shared mission. By working with residents to assess relationships with their surrounding environments, we hope to discover the best methods to improve these structures, and in turn, community health.




Improving Health in Affordable Housing with Active Design

Years of research have exposed a direct connection between built environment and residents’ health. Building, street, and neighborhood design is linked with a myriad of physical, social, and mental health problems. These issues are especially common in low income communities and affordable housing developments, which have a higher prevalence of chronic diseases and limited access to healthy food and safe recreation spaces.1 This information, coupled with case studies on successful healthy design initiatives, spurred the “Active Design” initiative in New York City.

Active Design is defined as an “evidence-based approach to development that identifies urban planning and architecture solutions to support healthy communities”.1 NYC’s Center for Active Design works on a variety of initiatives and policies to promote a healthier city structure. One such initiative is Active Design Verified (AVD). AVD recognizes the increased need for such structures in affordable housing, and designs spaces that encourage movement and physical activity. AVD project elements include stairs, bike paths, and on-site exercise facilities for residents.

Outdoor exercise and recreation space at Arbor House. Photo courtesy of Bernstein Associates.

Researchers at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine conducted a pilot study to assess the impact of Active Design on resident health. When comparing the tenants in a building with Active Design elements to those in a building without, they found increased rates of stair use, feelings of safety, and belief that their wellness goals were supported among those living in the Active Design facility.

Another ADV initiative, currently underway, is the Prospect Plaza site in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Per the Office of Vital Statistics, Brownsville has the highest death rates of any NYC region, many due to avoidable chronic health conditions. Prospect Plaza seeks to reduce this discrepancy by incorporating several Active Design elements into their 400-unit development, including outdoor exercise areas, gardens with fresh produce, and amenities such as transportation and supermarkets within walking distance.

Site plan sketch for Prospect Plaza in Brownsville, Brooklyn

Once complete, Prospect Plaza will provide a great opportunity for researchers to continue to evaluate the success of Active Design structures and make recommendations for future developments and policies in New York City. With continued efforts, Active Design initiatives can improve the well-being of NYC residents, among communities in need.


Claflin, A., Asri, N., Agarwal, R., Nienaber S. (2017). Understanding the Impact of Active Design in Affordable Housing: Insights for Policymakers and Developers. Center for Active Design. p. 1-6. Retrieved from: http://nyshealthfoundation.org/uploads/resources/center-for-active-design-brief-jan-2017.pdf