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Table 1 Characteristics and main findings of the studies reviewed

From: Do attributes in the physical environment influence children's physical activity? A review of the literature

First Author (year)ref#


Age group


Environmental attributes (independent variables)

Physical activity behavior (outcome variable)

Significant associations with outcome variable

Adkins (2004)16

52 F B USA

8- to 10-years


There are playgrounds, parks and gyms nearby, it is safe to play outside (parent and child report)

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity

No associations were identified between environmental attributes and physical activity.

Baranowski (1993)41

191 M/F B/W/H USA

3 and 4 years


Month of the year (weather)

Directly observed physical activity.

Children were least active outdoors during the hottest months.

Boarnet (2005)39

62 M/F W/B/H/A USA

Parents of children in 3rd – 5th grade (8–10 years)


Installation of sidewalks, crossing signals, traffic control as part of a Safe Routes to School (SR2S) program.

Parents' perceived change in child walking/biking to school

Greater increases in perceived rates of children walking/riding to school for children who passed a completed SR2S zone compared to those who did not pass a zone.

Braza (2004)30

105 students from 34 schools M/F W/B/H/A USA

5th grade (ages 9 to 11 years)

Unit of analysis: schools


School size; population density; number of intersections per street mile in .5 mile buffer around school site. Data were obtained using Geographic Information Systems.

Rates of walking and biking to school among students surveyed in each school

Higher population density and a greater number of intersections per street mile were associated with higher rates of walking and biking to school in bivariate models.

Brodersen (2005)17

4320 M/F W/B/A England

11 to 12 years


Area deprivation; number of sport pitches in borough; public spending on leisure facilities and open spaces; weather conditions.

Self-reported days during past week child performed hard exercise that made him/her breathe heavily and sweat.

Area deprivation (F) and total rainfall (F) were associated with lower physical activity. Colder temperatures (M) and number of sport pitches (F) were associated with higher physical activity.

Burdette (2005)48

3141 M/F W/B/H USA

3 years old


Mothers' ratings of perceived neighborhood safety

Mothers' reports of the average time per day their child played outdoors

No associations between mothers' perception of neighborhood safety and their reports of the time their child spent playing outdoors

Carver (2005)18

347 M/F U Australia

12–13 years


Parents' perceptions of good sports facilities for child, safe for child to walk/ride, good places for child to be active, traffic makes it difficult to walk. Child perceptions of ease to get around by bike, safety while walking/riding, roads safe, unattended dogs, strangers, fast food and convenience stores near home.

Child self-reported frequency and duration of walking or cycling in the neighborhood (for recreation, transport, exercise, get to school).

Adolescents walked or cycled more frequently when there were fewer unattended dogs (M, F), there were good places to be active (F), traffic was less problematic (M, F), there was lower perceived ease to cycle (M), there were more sport facilities in the area (M), the roads were perceived as safe(F), and convenience stores were further from home (F).

Above is a simplified summary of results given number of variables assessed and analyses performed (i.e., >400 associations assessed).

Cohen (2006)38

1554 F W/H/B/A USA

6th grade 12–13 years


Distance to school along the shortest street network

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity

A shorter distance to school was associated with greater MVPA during weekdays but not during the weekend

Dunton (2003)19

87 G W/H/A USA

14–17 years


Perceived activity-related equipment in the home and activity-related resources in the community (e.g., park, gym, biking trail)

Self-reported vigorous physical activity, total energy expenditure, and leisure time activity

No associations were identified between activity-related resources in the home or the community and girls' self-reported physical activity.

Ewing (2004)33

726 people and 709 school trips surveyed U (gender) U(ethnicity) USA

Students K-12th grade


Estimated walk/bike time between destinations; proportion of street miles with street trees, bike lanes or paved shoulders, or sidewalks; sidewalk width; accessibility of attractions; neighborhood population density; school size

Likelihood of walking or biking to school

Students with shorter walk or bike times to school, and students traveling through areas with sidewalks on main roads were more likely to walk or bike to school. School size was not related to the likelihood of walking/biking to school.

Fein (2004)20

610 M/F W Canada

Grades 9–12 Mean age 15.5 years


Home environment; convenient facilities (park, bike trails, gym, skating rink); School environment (gym space, availability of exercise equipment, athletic facilities accessible). The perceived importance of each resource was also assessed.

Self-reported physical activity

Perceived convenience of facilities and perceived home, neighborhood, and school environment were significantly correlated with self-reported physical activity. The perceived importance of each of these constructs was also associated with higher physical activity.

Felton (2002)42

1668 F W/B USA

8th grade (approx age 13 years)


Urban/rural residence

Self-reported moderate and vigorous physical activity

White girls living in urban areas and black girls in rural areas reported higher vigorous activity than their respective counterparts.

Gomez (2004)21

177 M, F H USA

7th grade (approx age 12 years)

CS, P, O

Crime density (O); perceived neighborhood safety (P); distance to nearest play areas (O)

Self-reported participation in outdoor activities (not in school)

Greater proximity to play areas (M), lower crime density (F), and high perceived safety (F) were associated with higher outdoor activity.

Gordon-Larsen (2000)43

17766 M, F W/B/H/A USA

7th to 12th grade (approx ages 12 – 17 years)


Urban/rural residence; crime; month of the year; region (South West, Midwest, Northeast).

Self-reported moderate to vigorous physical activity

Lower reported crime was associated with higher moderate to vigorous activity.

Hume (2005)34

127 M, F U Australia

10 year olds


Children drew maps of their home and neighborhood environments. The frequency with which particular objects and locations were represented was coded including green space and outdoor areas and opportunities for physical activity in the neighborhood (e.g., playgrounds and facilities).

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity.

Girls who drew a greater number of opportunities for physical activity in their neighborhood (e.g., the availability gyms, recreation and swimming centers, playgrounds) exhibited higher physical activity (specifically, low intensity physical activity).

Jago (2005)40

210 M W/B/H USA

10–14 years


Ease of walking/cycling; tidiness of neighborhood; sidewalk characteristics; street access and conditions

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity.

Sidewalk characteristics that foster walking (e.g., distance to curb, presence of trees as a buffer) were positively associated with light-intensity physical activity.

Molnar (2004)44

1378 M/F W/B/H USA

11 to 16 years

CS, P, O

Residents' perceived neighborhood safety and opportunities for children to play (P); social and physical disorder (O).

Hours/week participated in recreational physical activity (parent report).

More safe areas for children to play and lower social and physical disorder were associated with higher recreational activity.

Mota (2005)32

1123 M/F U Portugal

7th – 12th grade Mean age: 14.6 ± 1.6


Adolescent reports of the activity-friendliness of their neighborhood (e.g. access to destinations, connectivity of streets, infrastructure for walking and cycling, neighborhood safety, aesthetics, and recreational facilities).

Self-reported physical activity

In comparison to low active adolescents, high active adolescents reported greater access to destinations such as stores and transit stops, higher neighborhood aesthetics, and more recreational facilities in their neighborhood.

Norman (2006)37

799 M/F W/H/B/A USA

11–15 years


Number of private recreational facilities, schools and parks within 1 mile of home; walkability as assessed by residential density, retail floor area, intersection density, and land use mix

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity.

Significant bivariate associations were found between moderate-to-vigorous PA and the number of recreation facilities (girls), the number of parks and measures of walkability including intersection density (girls), and retail floor area ratio (boys).

Sallis (1993)22

347 M/F W/H USA

4 years old

CS, P, O

Number of specified play spaces (e.g., friend's backyard, park) within walking distance of home (P); equipment at home (O).

Directly observed physical activity.

A greater number of specified play spaces within walking distance of home was associated with higher physical activity.

Sallis (1999)45

732 M/F W/A/PI/H USA

4th – 5th grade (ages 9 to 10 years) at baseline

L (20 months), P

Neighborhood safety (parent report)

Parent and child report of child physical activity. Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity

No links were identified between neighborhood safety and baseline physical activity or change in activity.

Sallis (2001)23

151 areas in 24 middle schools USA

Middle-school-aged students (approx ages 11 to 13 years)


Type of play area (court space, open field space, indoor activity space); area size; permanent activity structures (e.g., basketball hoops, tennis courts, soccer goals); equipment.

Directly observed physical activity of students in each play area.

Higher levels of activity were noted when equipment was available in outdoor play areas (F) when more permanent activity structures were available (M), and when such structures were available in combination with adult supervision (F).

Sallis (2002)28

781 M/F W (75%) USA

Grades 1–12 (ages 6–18)


Safe to play outdoors; access to parks/playgrounds; distance to park; safety of nearest park.

Parents' reports of children's physical activity and objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity (N = sub sample of 200)

Among girls in grades 10–12, parents' perception of neighborhood safety was associated with higher physical activity. Among girls in grades 7–9, parents' perception of park safety was negatively associated with children's physical activity.

Sirard (2005)47

Unit of analysis = school (N = 8) USA

Elementary schools


School urbanization and weather conditions.

Rates of walking and cycling to school for each school.

No associations between environmental variables and active commuting were identified.

Stratton (2005)29

99 M/F U Wales and England

4–11 years

I, O

Intervention in which school playgrounds were painted with murals, hopscotch, fun trails, snakes and ladders, and court markings (e.g., lines for basketball).

Heart rate telemeters were used to assess heart rate during physical activity and converted to represent MVPA and VPA.

In comparison to control schools, time spent in MVPA and VPA increased significantly in intervention schools as a result of playground painting.

Stucky-Ropp (1993)31

240 M/F W USA

5th and 6th grade Mean age: 11.2 ± .7


Number of exercise-related items at home

Self reported physical activity

A greater number of exercise-related items in the home was associated with higher physical activity among girls but not boys.

Tappe (1989)46

236 M/F W, B, A USA

High school Mean age: 15 years 9 months


Unsuitable weather as a barrier to exercise

Self-reported physical activity.

No differences in weather as a perceived barrier for physical activity among low and high active girls and boys.

Timperio (2004)24

1200 M/F U Australia

5–6 years and 10–12 years.


Traffic density, road safety, strangers, sporting facilities, and public transportation (parent report). Children 10–12 years also reported on perceived traffic, road safety, strangers, and sport facilities.

Walking/riding to particular destinations (e.g., friend's house, park, school) 3 or more times/week (parent report)

Among 5–6 year olds, parents' perception of heavy traffic (M), and limited public transportation (F) were associated with lower walking/cycling among children. Among 10–12 year olds, youth who perceived no parks nearby (M, F) and whose parents believed that they had to cross many roads to get to play areas (M, F), that there were no lights or crossings (M), that there were few sporting arenas (F), and that there was limited public transportation (F) were less likely to bicycle/walk.

Timperio (2006)36

912 M/F U Australia

5–6 years and 10–12 years


Distance to school, busy-road barrier, route along busy road, pedestrian route directness (connectivity), steep incline

Walking or riding to school (parent report)

In both age groups, children were less likely to actively commute to school if their route as >800 m and a busy route barrier was present en route. Children with a steep incline (5–6 year olds) and a direct route to school (10–12 year olds) were less likely to actively commute

Trost (1997)25

202 (rural) M/F B/W USA

5th – 6th grade (ages 10 to 11) at baseline

L (1 year), P

Availability of activity-related equipment in the home.

Self-reported physical activity measured one year after determinants.

No links between home equipment and physical activity.

Trost (1999)26

108 M/F B USA

6th grade (approx age 11 years)


Availability of activity-related equipment in the home.

Objectively measured (accelerometer) physical activity

No links between home equipment and physical activity

Zakarian (1994)27

1634 M/F H/W/A/B USA

9th and 11th grade (approx age 14 and 16 years)


Number of facilities for sport and exercise; safe to exercise in neighborhood.

Self-reported vigorous exercise (20 minutes of activity that makes your heart rate and breathing increase)

Access to facilities was associated with higher vigorous exercise.

Zask (2001)35

3912 M/F U Australia

5–12 years


Direct observation of the availability of activity-related equipment (e.g., balls, fixed equipment)

Direct observation of children's physical activity behavior in all school playground areas.

The presence of equipment (other than balls) was not associated with children's physical activity.

  1. Note:
  2. Number/Gender/Ethnicity/Country: M, male; F, female; W, White; B = African American/Black; H, Hispanic/Mexican American; A, Asian; PI, Pacific Island; U = unknown (not mentioned); USA, United States of America.
  3. Design: CS, cross sectional; L, longitudinal; I, intervention; P, perceived environment; O, objectively measured environment.
  4. Physical activity behavior: MVPA, moderate to vigorous physical activity; VPA, vigorous physical activity.
  5. Significant associations: M, F, significant findings limited to males and females respectively.
  6. If an ethnic group made up ≤ 2% of the total sample, it was not included in the list of ethnic groups assessed.
  7. † Given that the same sample was used in Timperio (2006) and Timperio (2004) and there was an overlap in the measure of physical activity, only the novel findings are recorded for the more recent study.