Physical environmental correlates of childhood obesity: a systematic review


GF Dunton, Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research, Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California, 1000 South Fremont Ave, Unit 8, Bldg 5, Alhambra, CA 91803, USA. E-mail:


Increasing rates of childhood obesity in the USA and other Western countries are a cause for serious public health concern. Neighborhood and community environments are thought to play a contributing role in the development of obesity among youth, but it is not well understood which types of physical environmental characteristics have the most potential to influence obesity outcomes. This paper reports the results of a systematic review of quantitative research examining built and biophysical environmental variables associated with obesity in children and adolescents through physical activity. Literature searches in PubMed, PsychInfo and Geobase were conducted. Fifteen quantitative studies met the inclusion criteria for this systematic review. The majority of studies were cross-sectional and published after 2005. Overall, few consistent findings emerged. For children, associations between physical environmental variables and obesity differed by gender, age, socioeconomic status, population density and whether reports were made by the parent or child. Access to equipment and facilities, neighborhood pattern (e.g. rural, exurban, suburban) and urban sprawl were associated with obesity outcomes in adolescents. For most environmental variables considered, strong empirical evidence is not yet available. Conceptual gaps, methodological limitations and future research directions are discussed.