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GIS-based study reveals link between location and health

San Diego, USA: A series of studies published in a theme issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine, revealed that neighbourhood in which children and adolescents live and spend their time play a major role in determining whether or not they eat a healthy diet, get enough exercise or become obese. Each of the six studies used the latest concepts and methods in GIS based research to determine how the geographic location affects physical health.

A study titled “Spatial Classification of Youth Physical Activity Patterns” showed, for example, that while rural youth get the largest proportion of their physical activity while at school, urban and suburban youth are most active when commuting. Not only does this finding suggest that the walk to school might be just as important to some children’s health as is the physical education they receive as part of the school curriculum, it is also important given that adolescent health behaviours are predictive of behaviours in adults.

Brian E. Saelens and Lawrence D. Frank, along with their colleagues, authored two papers for the theme issue. “Obesogenic Neighborhood Environments, Child and Parent Obesity: The Neighborhood Impact on Kids Study” evaluated child and parent weight status across neighbourhoods in Seattle and San Diego and ultimately found evidence that GIS based definitions of obesogenic neighbourhoods that consider both physical activity and the availability of healthy food options were strongly related to childhood obesity.

In a second study, the researchers used GIS based measures to determine the ‘walkability’ and proximity to healthy food of certain neighbourhoods in the San Diego and Seattle regions. The study recommended that such measures be used to study physical activity, nutrition and obesity outcomes.

Two commentaries included in the theme issue examined the ways that computer based GIS systems—which transform geospatial data into visual representations of the real world—can help prevent childhood obesity. “Thinking About Place, Spatial Behavior, and Spatial Process in Childhood Obesity” by Stephen A. Matthews, outlined the content of the theme, concluding that although GIS is not a panacea, it “offers an important means of better understanding and dealing with some of the most pressing problems of our time, and provides valuable tools for researchers and policymakers alike.”

The second commentary, providing a perspective from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, noted that while GIS is still in the relatively early stages of application in the field, it might one day enhance understanding of the complex and dynamic connections between people, their health and their physical and social environments.

Source: Science Codex