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Childhood Obesity and Neighborhood Crime

Courtney Towner

October 14, 2008


America’s ever expanding waistline is becoming a huge problem and affecting even the youngest in our country. The rates of childhood obesity continue to escalate at an alarming rate. The Obesity Society, which includes the American Obesity Association, is the leading scientific society dedicated to studying obesity; their data suggests that the growing trend in BMI measures will only continue to get worse. According to the BMI measurements taken from 1999-2000 the prevalence of obesity in children ages 6-11 was 15.3%. Comparatively the prevalence in BMI measures for adolescents aged 12-19 in 1999-2000 was 15.5% <>.  As obesity rates continue to increase, extensive research is being conducted to understand causes and preventative measures for obesity. One of the most emphasized preventative measures is physical activity.

Behaviors involving physical activity and nutrition are the cornerstone of preventing obesity in children and adolescents.”

 <>. Physical activity can include but is not limited to recess in schools and after school play in children’s neighborhoods. Yet not all neighborhoods were created equal, the goal of this paper is to examine the way that childhood obesity and physical activity are affected by neighborhood crime. If a neighborhood is unsafe will crime either actual or perceived, limit the amount of physical activity that a child receives at home, therefore increasing the prevalence rates of childhood obesity.




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Why are people so scared?


To understand the relationship between childhood obesity, physical activity, and neighborhood crime there must first be an established understanding of the significance of a fear of crime. In the wake of 9/11 it’s easy to understand why people have become more fearful of crime affecting their neighborhoods and livelihood here in the U.S. However, fear of crime is not a new phenomenon. According to an article written in February 1994, fear was a top American concern above healthcare, AIDS, drugs, and war. 37% of those polled indicated a great fear of crime < >. Also, in 2005 a Gallup Poll conducted in October indicated when participants were polled, “Is there more crime in the U.S than there was a year ago, or less?”, 67% said that there was more crime. Further when asked, “Overall, how would you describe the problem of crime in the United States? Is it extremely serious, very serious, moderately serious, not too serious, or not serious at all?”, 19% indicated that it was extremely serious and 30% admitted that crime was very serious<>. These poll results prove that adults indicate that they believe crime is very prevalent. Implications of this data might suggest how adults’ perception of crime as a frequent occurrence might influence their children’s outdoor activity.


Ultimately, much of the fear of crime could possibly originate from Americans perception that crime is so rampant. Nonetheless, a fear of crime can slowly begin to influence lifestyle decisions. Taken from an essay on the fear of crime the author writes, “Fearful individuals are also less likely to leave their homes at night, travel alone, answer their doors, or travel on foot”>. If fear of crime can slowly begin to keep adults from doing certain outdoor activities, there is a good chance that adults who are parents could limit the amount of time that their children spend outside based on neighborhood safety concerns. Inevitably, limiting the amount of time a child is allowed to spend outside could aid in curbing physical activity.


Childhood Obesity and Actual Crime


First, I will examine the correlation between childhood obesity, physical activity, and actual rates of crime in neighborhoods. A study conducted by Burdette and Whitaker in 2003 sought to understand the relationship between proximity to neighborhood playgrounds, fast food restaurants, and actual crime in neighborhoods. The cross-sectional study was conducted using 3 and 4 year olds who lived in Cincinnati, OH and who qualified for WIC. A federal assistance program that helps low-income families with food and nutrition practices until the child is 5 years old. Most importantly, neighborhood crime was defined as the number of serious crimes including rape, larceny, assault, and 911 calls.

Text Box: child with a BMI measure greater or equal to the 95th percentile for their height and weight was obese. Upon analysis, a large deviation in neighborhood safety statistics between two of the neighborhoods where 6.8% of the participant population resided, emerged. The two neighborhoods were three standard deviations above the mean. This disparity led the researchers to divide the groups of children into quintiles based on the crime and call rate in their individual neighborhoods.  Additionally, a one-way variance test to compare BMI scores and poverty rates across children living in different quintiles of call and crime rates was assessed. A household poverty ratio was used to control for socioeconomic status and the research did show that there was a higher correlation between crime and call rates with a high poverty ratio. While the study indicated that there was a higher variability rate in the prevalence of obesity in areas with larger volumes of 911 calls, the study

found no conclusive evidence that there was a link between actual neighborhood crime and obesity even after controlling for poverty, a child’s race and sex.





The results of this study appear to make the suggestion that they found no relationship between police crime statistics, 911 calls, and childhood obesity. However, the study goes on to mention that one of their limitations was the inability to measure the parent’s perceived crime in neighborhoods and a child’s physical activity.  Additionally, while the study did control for poverty, obesity in children in lower income neighborhoods might have more to do with what foods are available in their area.


Physical Activity and Actual Crime: Does Gender matter?


Next, this paper examines a study that observed neighborhood crime and the relationship with a child’s outdoor physical activity (Gomez, Johnson, Selva, & Sellis, 2004).  The cross-sectional research study examined outdoor physical activity of Mexican Americans in relation to key environmental factors. These environmental factors included: neighborhood safety as a perceived barrier, crime density, distance to nearest open play area, and income. The 7th graders who participated in this study were selected from a group called Project Physical Activity Changes in Teenagers (PACT), a 5-year longitudinal study that measures changes in physical activity as teenagers continue through adolescence. All participants in the study who were in PACT were selected from 4 public middle schools and 1 private school. Each participant was asked to fill out a survey so that their answers could be analyzed to obtain data measurements.


To quantify physical activity each participant was asked to indicate what physical activities they had participated in at least 10 times in the past 12 months. Any physical activity that could have been a result of a school team was eliminated. Income was a measure of per capita income rather than household income and was obtained from the Censtats Information Bureau. Crime density was measured using police blotters that contained all crimes that involved San Antonio Police response during the previous 24 hours. All blotters included street address and block number for each crime.  Violent crime included but was not limited to assault, gang-related activity, and sex crimes. Neighborhood crime as a perceived barrier was measured using the survey and asking questions that explicitly asked whether neighborhood safety was a factor that prevented people from playing outdoors.


Conclusively this study found that violent crime within a ½ mile radius of the home greatly affects a girl’s outdoor physical activity and has hardly any effect on a boy’s outdoor physical activity. The study also shows that a girl’s perception of neighborhood safety is related to out door physical activity. A girl’s perception of neighborhood safety however, does not correlate with actual crime density. Therefore, even if a girl lives in a neighborhood with a high violent crime rate her perception of safety is independent of the actual neighborhood safety. Inevitably, this study similar to the previous study was not able to find a significant correlation between crime and childhood obesity.


Childhood Obesity, Physical Activity, and Perceived Crime


Now, I will examine the relationship between parent’s perceptions of crime rates in their neighborhoods and how this influences physical activity and childhood obesity. A study was published in January 2006 that focused on crime perception and obesity at 7 years of age (Lumeng, Appugliese, Cabral, Bradley, & Zuckerman). Participants selected for this study were involved in the National Institute of Child Health and Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD-SECCYD). The participants lived in 10 U.S. urban and rural cities. In the end, 1,364 families participated in the study. The group contained 24% minority children, 10% of mothers who had less than a high school education, and 14% of mothers who were single at the time of birth of their child.  The study collected extensive assessments and the children were re-evaluated when they were 4.5 years of age and at the beginning and end of their first grade year (7 years of age).


Each mother was given a Neighborhood questionnaire that they were asked to fill out with another caregiver in the home. Each Neighborhood Questionnaire contained two scales: 1) Neighborhood Safety Subscale and 2) Neighborhood Social Involvement Subscale. A child’s BMI was measured at 4.5 and 7 years of age. Moreover, maternal education was used as the indicator for socioeconomic status.


768 children were included in the study and overweight children usually had mothers with a lower level of education. Yet the study suggests, “overweight children did not differ from children who were not overweight by sex, race/ethnicity, relationship of the safety reporter to the child, maternal marital status, maternal depressive symptoms, amount of structured after-school activities, or Neighborhood Social Involvement Subscale scores” (p.27).  Upon further analysis, White parents were more likely to perceive their neighborhood as safe as opposed to non-Whites regardless of socioeconomic status.


After bivariate analysis of the data, parents of children who were overweight at 7 years of age perceived their environments as significantly less safe. In addition, the NSS (measure of neighborhood safety) data, when present in the individual quartiles showed that 17% of children were overweight in quartile 1 (least neighborhood perceived as safe) , 10% in the quartile 2, 13% in quartile 3, and only 4% in quartile 4 (most neighborhood perceived as safe). The authors conclude, “These data show a significant relationship between perception of an unsafe neighborhood and overweight at age 7 even when many variables are controlled, including baseline BMI 3 years before the measures of interest” (p. 30).



While this study extensively measured the relationship between perceived crime and overweight the study did not focus on measuring physical activity or actual crime rates. Therefore, the link between overweight and crime perception might not be very strong considering there is no true measure of the child’s physical activity. Overweight could be confounded again with foods available in the area and limited exposure to physical activity. The study also did not include the weight of the mother or the other caregiver in the home, these could have even more of an effect on whether the parents are playing active games with their children.


More about Childhood Obesity, Physical Activity, and Perceived Crime


A cross-sectional study was performed in which parents of 5 to 10 year olds, from a suburban pediatric practice and an inner city practice, were asked to fill out a 20-item questionnaire (Weir, Etelson, & Brand, 2006). Parents seen in the inner city practice as well as the suburban practices were included in the study. The inner city practice consisted of mostly minority patients 40% who could not speak English and the suburban practice served predominately Caucasian middle class patients.


The questions on the survey asked parents to rate the physical activity of the children between the ages of 5 and 10, and to rate the safety of their neighborhoods. 204 surveys were answered and submitted from the parents from the inner city practice and 103 surveys from the suburban practice.


When the scores were rated in terms of activity, children of parents from the inner city practice were 58% less likely to participate in group sports versus 30% of children of parents from the suburban practice. Additionally, 21% of inner city children against 4% of suburban children were not involved in organized activities or allowed to play outside without being accompanied by an adult.


In terms of crime 70% of inner city parents vs. 12% of suburban parents were concerned that their child might be harmed by a gang, 36% vs. 9% felt there was not a safe place to play outside in their neighborhood, 50% vs. 3% felt that neighborhood crime was so bad that their child would be too unsafe to play outside, and finally 48% vs. 3% of the parents felt that they were unsafe in their own neighborhood. Once the activity and anxiety scores of the inner city parents and suburban parents was considered together, the complete amount of a child’s physical activity had a weak negative correlation with the parent’s perception of safety in the neighborhood. There was no correlation found in the suburban community.


The statistical data from this study only implied a weak correlation between perception of crime in the neighborhood and children’s physical activity. Yet, most notably this study quantifies how parent’s of inner city children feel about their neighborhoods as not just unsafe for their children, but also themselves. Ultimately, this study does not prove that crime perception significantly impacts physical activity.




The studies presented in this paper do not find any conclusive evidence that there is a strong link between childhood obesity, physical activity, and neighborhood crime. While some of the studies did find a slight correlation between the variables, the evidence was not adequate to make a strong conclusion. This paper by no means investigates every article about crime rates and perceived crime and the affects on childhood obesity and physical activity. Therefore, the question of whether these variables have a causal or correlation relationship still deserves extensive research.  The included studies show a slight difference between actual crime rates and perceived crime. Actual crime rates appear to have absolutely no implication on physical activity or childhood obesity. Yet, parental perception of crime did appear to have more of a link to physical activity and childhood obesity, rather weak, but more correlated than actual crime. Furthermore, crime perceptions did show a gendered bias in parents. Though overweight children are most likely members of families with lower socioeconomic status and live in higher crime areas, the variables simply accompany one another, but there is no causal relationship. Neighborhood crime seems to be a risk factor in the environment for limited physical activity and obesity. In the end, neighborhood crime whether perceived or actual, physical activity, and childhood obesity appear to have no significant connection.








Burdette, H.L., & Whitaker, R.C. (2004). Neighborhood playgrounds, fast food restaurants, and crime: relationships to overweight in low income preschool children. Preventative Medicine, 38, 57-63.


Gomez, J. E., Johnson, B.A., Selva, M., & Sallis, J.F. (2004). Violent crime and outdoor physical activity among inner city youth.  Preventative Medicine, 39, 876-881.


Lumeng, J.C., Appugliese, D., Cabral, H.J., Bradley, R.H., & Zuckerman, B. (2006). Neighborhood safety and overweight status in children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med., 160, 25-31.



Weir, L. S., Etelson, D., & Brand, D.A. (2006). Parents’ perceptions of neighborhood safety and children’s physical activity. Preventative Medicine, 43, 212-217.





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