CHAPEL HILL, NC -- In a study of 20,000 U.S. teens, researchers found resources available for physical activity were not distributed relatively equally across all segments of the population and that each facility in adolescents’ communities increased the likelihood that they would meet physical activity recommendations and reduced their likelihood of being overweight, according to research in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition, a department jointly housed within UNC’s schools of public health and medicine. They especially wanted to learn whether minority and low-income groups – in which obesity levels are high and exercise levels low – had access to such resources to about the same degree as people in richer communities.

"We expected to find that private, fee facilities would be more common in more affluent areas, but the extent and magnitude of the lack of access in poorer communities was very surprising," Dr. Penny Gordon-Larsen, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina and study author, said. "Even the types of facilities we think of as most equitably allocated, like YMCAs, public parks and youth organizations, were significantly less common in poorer areas."

Investigators extracted data about the adolescents’ weight and activity patterns gathered during detailed interviews in 1994 and 1995 and linked that information to further detailed information about the communities in which adolescents lived. The investigators used national databases and satellite-derived images of areas where subjects lived, along with socio-economic data from almost a fifth of all U.S. census block groups. Factored into the analysis were the numbers of public and private exercise facilities, schools, universities, public beaches, pools, tennis courts, youth centers, parks, camps and athletic clubs within communities.

"This issue, termed health disparities between different race, ethnic and income groups in the United States, represents one of the major health dilemmas facing the nation," said Popkin, who also directs UNC’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center. "This is the first study to empirically show a major systematic factor in our environment – namely a lack of recreation resources – explains an important component of this difference in health."