The study -- funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute and led by Dr. Reid Ewing of the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research -- found that children living in expansive suburbs often rely on cars to get to school, stores and other activities.
Much like their parents -- whose waistlines similarly suffer from reliance on cars -- suburban kids are frequently unable to get the basic physical exercise city dwellers get by simply walking to school, work or shopping canters, Ewing found.
"In a sprawling suburb, you can do very little on foot," Ewing said. In contrast, he said, children and parents who live in cities often walk to stores or to public transportation, and carry groceries up flights of stairs in buildings.
Because suburban families must commute to jobs and school, cars frequently become "de facto snack shops" for kids and adults, with fast food accounting for much of in-car snacking. Ewing said fast food is the most common dining-out option for sprawling suburbs in the United States.
Ewing's research team -- which examined data from a government survey that followed nearly 9,000 12- to 17-year-old children beginning in 1997 -- found that the most compact, "walkable" county in the country is New York County, which includes Manhattan. The most spread-out, suburban area in the country was Jackson County, near Topeka, Kansas.
To help combat the weight gain often associated with suburban living, Ewing urges parents and their children to cut down on TV watching time and get involved in sports or organized physical activities. Parents interested in more drastic action can move to a more "walkable" city, Ewing said.