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Neighbourhoods could hold key to getting kids more active

Monday, 31 October 2016

Neighbourhoods could hold key to getting kids more active

Prising children away from the couch and their electronic devices is an all too common challenge for many parents. But a new study aims to find out if certain changes to our neighbourhoods could encourage children to be more physically active – and help reduce New Zealand’s childhood obesity epidemic.

Associate Professor Melody Smith from the University of Auckland has received one of five prestigious Sir Charles Hercus Fellowships from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) in its latest funding round to explore how environmental changes can impact on children’s physical activity and body size.

In this study Dr Smith will compare changes in children’s physical activity, active travel, and body size across different conditions in Māngere, Auckland. These conditions include where ‘intensive’ and ‘light’ infrastructural interventions have been made across neighbourhoods to make physical activity such as walking and cycling easier and safer.

Built environments in our neighbourhoods, which include not only buildings but the human-made spaces between buildings (e.g., parks) and infrastructure that supports human activity (e.g., transport networks), are more likely to have a greater influence on children’s levels of physical activity in the long term than individual factors alone, says Dr Smith.

“After smoking, insufficient physical activity is the greatest cause of chronic disease in New Zealand. Unfortunately, individual, education-based strategies to generate sustained improvements in physical activity have proven unsuccessful at the population level,” says Dr Smith.

Despite significant investment and public health initiatives, childhood obesity has increased in the past decade from 8 per cent in 2008 to 11 per cent in 2015. A third of New Zealand children are classified as ‘insufficiently physically active for health’.

“Our aim with this research is to provide evidence-based recommendations for built environment design features that support the best physical activity outcomes in children,” says Dr Smith.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says Dr Smith is an internationally recognised leader in children’s physical activity research whose prior research at Auckland University of Technology has been translated to policy and practice for promoting physical activity and recreation, all of which bodes well for her fellowship.

“Melody’s fellowship research specifically addresses the goals of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, which places great emphasis on initiatives aimed at increasing physical activity. We know that physical activity is essential for healthy physical, psychological, and emotional development in children, so funding research in this area is incredibly important,” says Professor McPherson.

This year the HRC has awarded five of its top Sir Charles Hercus fellowships worth a combined total of $2,440,000. See below for the list of all the recipients in the HRC’s general career development awards category, or go to and filter for ‘Career development awards’ and ‘2017’.


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