Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Socio-cultural determinants of adiposity and physical activity in preschool children: A cross-sectional study

Flavia Bürgi1*, Ursina Meyer1, Iris Niederer1, Vincent Ebenegger2, Pedro Marques-Vidal3, Urs Granacher1, Susi Kriemler4 and Jardena J Puder5

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Basel, Birsstrasse 320B, 4052 Basel, Switzerland

2 Institute of Sports Sciences and Physical Education, University of Lausanne, Bâtiment de Vidy, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

3 Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and Faculty of biology and medicine, University of Lausanne, Rue de Bugnon 17, 1005 Lausanne, Switzerland

4 Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, University of Basel, Socinstrasse 57, 4002 Basel, Switzerland

5 Service of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois, University of Lausanne, Rue de Bugnon 46, 1011 Lausanne, Switzerland

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:733  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-733

Published: 26 November 2010



Both individual socio-cultural determinants such as selected parental characteristics (migrant background, low educational level and workload) as well as the regional environment are related to childhood overweight and physical activity (PA). The purpose of the study was to compare the impact of distinct socio-cultural determinants such as the regional environment and selected parental characteristics on adiposity, PA and motor skills in preschool children.


Forty preschools (N = 542 children) of two culturally different urban regions (German and French speaking part of Switzerland) participated in the study (Ballabeina Study). Outcome measures included adiposity (BMI and skinfold thickness), objectively measured sedentary activities and PA (accelerometers) and agility performance (obstacle course). Parental characteristics (migrant status, educational level and workload) were assessed by questionnaire.


Children from the French speaking areas had higher adiposity, lower levels of total and of more intense PA, were more sedentary and less agile than children from the German speaking regions (percent differences for all outcome parameters except for BMI ≥10%; all p ≤ 0.04). Differences in skinfold thickness, sedentary activities and agility, but not in PA, were also found between children of Swiss and migrant parents, though they were ≤8% (p ≤ 0.02). While paternal workload had no effect, maternal workload and parental education resulted in differences in some PA measures and/or agility performance (percent differences in both: ≤9%, p ≤ 0.008), but not in adiposity or sedentary activities (p = NS). Regional differences in skinfold thickness, PA, sedentary activities and agility performance persisted after adjustment for parental socio-cultural characteristics, parental BMI and, where applicable, children's skinfolds (all p ≤ 0.01).


The regional environment, especially the broader social environment, plays a prominent role in determining adiposity, PA and motor skills of young children and should be implicated in the prevention of obesity and promotion of PA in children.

Trial Registration NCT00674544