A New Zealand study that tracked teenagers with GPS devices found that those who spend more free time in “healthy” areas are more likely to be physically active.
The study, led by the University of Canterbury, measured where nearly 200 high school students in Auckland and Wellington went over a two-week period by fitting participants with a wearable global positioning system (GPS) device. This was combined with an accelerometer that measured their movement and activity patterns.
The results were combined with environmental data to find out how close participants were; B. Green spaces (parks and recreation centers), dairies, grocery stores or take-away outlets. The study aimed to find out how spending time in different areas affected physical activity and sedentary time among teenagers.
Lead researcher Dr. Matthew Hobbs, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury (UC) School of Health and co-director of the GeoHealth Laboratory, says a key finding is that the more time young people spend in areas with access to health-promoting features, the less time they spend they are sitting or traveling by car.
“We found that the environment appears to have an impact on adolescents’ behavior, particularly their activity levels,” he says. “This is significant because we know that increased physical activity in adolescence is associated with better academic performance as well as more positive long-term health outcomes.”
The research was conducted in collaboration with Auckland University of Technology and published in the international journal Health & Place. It is one of the first to use GPS data to track youth combined with a comprehensive measurement of the type of environment in which they spend their free time. “We know that youth leads to young people becoming more independent and very mobile. In this way, it is possible to determine more precisely where they are,” says Dr. hobbs.
Previous research on the environmental risks to adolescent health has been limited, but they are a priority group because they are at an important stage in life, he says.
“Over the past few decades, the environments in which children and young people live and play have changed significantly, including, for example, a higher number of fast-food restaurants in some areas.
“We need a better understanding of how access to these features affects health behaviors and health outcomes, particularly as unfavorable environments are often more prevalent in the most deprived areas of Aotearoa, New Zealand.”
He says adolescence is often associated with a decrease in physical activity and an increase in sedentary behavior.
“It is likely that environmental factors play a role in this trend. I think the important aspects are whether teenagers can walk to school, whether they have safe places to play with friends, how congested the traffic is and how connected the roads are. It’s about having more neighborhoods that encourage physical activity.”
The study used environmental data from the Healthy Location Index developed by a team of researchers including Dr. Hobbs and geospatial scientist Dr. Lukas Marek of UC’s GeoHealth Laboratory. The Healthy Location Index classifies areas of Aotearoa New Zealand based on how healthy or unhealthy the neighborhood is.
Overall, participants in the new study spent most of their measured time at school (4.8 hours per day), closely followed by home (4.3 hours per day) and other areas (2.3 hours per day). More time was spent driving in a motor vehicle (31 minutes per day) compared to walking (23 minutes per day), and more time was spent sedentary compared to doing light or moderate-intensity exercise.
As the proportion of time spent in areas with better access to health-promoting functions increased, the amount of time spent sedentary and traveling in a vehicle decreased.