Mobile Healthy Places

Investigating the Impact of a Smart Growth Community of Children’s Physical Activity Contexts Using Ecological Momentary Assessment

Funded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grant RWJF65837

(Dunton, PI)

Obesity poses a serious concern to the health and well-being of children in the U.S., where over 30% of school-aged youth are overweight or at risk of overweight. Communities designed according to smart growth principles, which aim to create walkable neighborhoods, promote sense of place, integrate mixed uses, preserve open space, and establish compact building design, are increasingly seen as a promising strategy to reduce childhood obesity risk. In 2008-2009, low- and middle-income families in San Bernadino County CA will have the opportunity to move into a new community called The Preserve, which is developed around principles of smart growth. This natural experiment offers a unique, time-sensitive opportunity to examine the effects of the built environment on physical activity experiences of high-risk children. The study will examine children’s physical activity behaviors in the immediate contexts in which they occur. The specific aims are to (1) determine whether moving to a smart growth community influences children’s exposure to and experience of behavior settings and contexts conducive to physical activity (characterized by type of social company and physical location, availability of space for play, perceived safety and aesthetics of play space) and (2) determine whether these factors account for the effects of smart growth communities on children’s physical activity levels.

The research used an experimental design with random assignment to groups based on a housing lottery. The intervention group consisted of children from new resident families who are randomly drawn to live in the smart growth community (n = 60). The control group consisted of children from families with similar demographic and income characteristics who expressed interest in living in a smart growth community but are not selected in the lottery (n = 60). A prospective measurement design was used with the baseline in Spring of 2009 (when families are newly moved into The Preserve) and follow-up in the Fall of 2009. Participants consisted of 4th-6th grade children (ages 9-13 years) from low- and middle-income families living in Chino, CA and surrounding communities. Ethnicity was expected to be 31% white, 44% Hispanic, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander, 5-6% African-American, and 6-7% Other.

An innovative research methodology, Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) with mobile phones will measure real-time in situ exposure to and experience of behavior settings and contexts. Accelerometers will assess physical activity. Secondary analysis will be conducted on data from neighborhood audits and GIS mapping of geospatial information.