Researching Toward a Healthier Community


A paper recently published by Yingru Li, Ph.D., assistant professor of Geographical Information Systems at the University of Central Florida’s Department of Sociology, assessed an issue of great importance in the U.S.

According to Li, childhood obesity rate has tripled in the United States in the past 30 years. Because of obesity-related illnesses, children are predicted to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents for the first time in history. Physical inactivity has been considered as one of the most important reasons of the high overweight or obese rates nowadays.

Li and her collaborators on the paper assessed physical environments and social injustice and their impacts on children’s physical activities, psychological wellbeing, and weight status in eastern Alabama counties. The paper, published in the journal Applied Geography, is entitled “Social environmental disparities on children’s psychosocial stress, physical activity and weight status in Eastern Alabama counties.”

The research used both qualitative and quantitative methods. Survey questionnaires were collected for 690 children in grades K-6 at six public elementary schools in east Alabama. Children’s weight, height, socio-demographics, family environment, physical activity, and psychosocial stress were gathered. Secondary data were obtained from census bureau and local government to assess community and school physical and social environments.

Over 42% of the surveyed children were overweight or obese, much higher than the national average, 30.8%. Through GIS and spatial statistical analysis, the researchers found inconsistent and even opposite spatial patterns of physical activity environments and social economic status of communities.

The study found that those with the best physical activity environments were concentrated in the downtown areas of the three counties. These block groups were characterized by high percentages of African American population, low median household income, and serious racial segmentation.

Multilevel models were constructed to further understand the impacts of inconsistent physical and social environments on children’s health. A causal interaction between physical activity, psychosocial stress, and weight was also found. And family and school environments were more influential to children’s participation in physical activity, psychosocial wellbeing, and weight status compared to community environments.

“The findings and methods of the published work is also transferable and applicable to other regions like Orlando and Florida,” said Li.

Li and UCF sociology doctoral student Ting Du and undergraduate student Kenisha Johnson are continuing this research on Orlando and Florida. With GIS and spatial analysis techniques, they are exploring the impacts of community environments on children and youth health eating behaviors and participation in physical activity in Orlando and Florida.

“Obesity is considered not only a weight problem but also a national epidemic, associated with the leading causes of death, poor mental health outcomes, and reduced quality of life.” Li said. “These research findings are imperative to understand the underlying mechanisms of childhood obesity and provide valuable references for improving children’s healthy behaviors and reducing obese risk.”

Li further explained the policy and social implications of her research. Identification of factors promoting obesity in an under-served community can lead to intervention of local leadership to promote a healthier community, she explained.

“Children could benefit when community leaders work in conjunction with zoning and planning agencies, school officials, health professionals, and local residents in order to develop a community strategy which addresses issues related to poor options for physical activity as well as children’s behavioral and psychological problems.”

Read the paper here.

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