2013-03-22

Your Neighborhood Is Why You're Fat

And it’s also why you’re not. Data shows that there is something as important as what you eat to your overall health: how where you live is laid out.

Academic literature defines an "obesogenic environment" as "promoting gaining weight and one that is not conducive to weight loss." But there’s a simpler way of putting it: It is a neighborhood that makes you fat.

The developed world is full of them: suburbs where the only option is driving, and where stores and recreation are too far away for walking or cycling. No wonder we have an obesity crisis, with a third of adults, and 17% of children, classified as unhealthily overweight. It’s not all about what we eat.

The good news, though, is that the opposite is also true. If people have options to shop and exercise locally, they will take them, and health can improve. A recent study from Western Australia, which surveyed 1,400 people before and after relocating to new developments, found that nearby stores increased walking by an average of 5 to 6 minutes per week, and that access to a park or beach increased physical activity by 21 minutes a week.

"The study demonstrates the potential of local infrastructure to support health-enhancing behaviors," says Billie Giles-Corti, professor at the University of Melbourne.

Another study published last year reached a similar conclusion. Researchers looked at neighborhoods in San Diego and Seattle, assigning scores based on walkability, parks, and access to fresh fruit and vegetables within half a mile (access to junk food counted negatively). Children aged 6 to 11 were 59% less likely to be obese if they came from a high-scoring area (the study accounted for other factors, such as family income).

Finally, a recent study from the San Francisco Bay Area found that increasing commuting by walking or cycling from 4 to 22 minutes per person could cut their incidences of cardiovascular disease and diabetes by 14%. "Increased physical activity associated with active transport could generate a large net improvement in population health," the researchers say.

The three studies show the same thing: There’s a strong relationship between neighborhood planning and health. Think about that the next time you’re not walking to the store.

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3 Comments

  • Enrique R

    nothing very new under the sun... yes, we know lots of your fellow citizens like to live in big wooden houses in the middle of nowhere and take a SUV to buy a couple of milk bricks. And on top of that, there is a passion for over caloric meals. Of course, altogether, it doesn´t help to have a healthy weight.
    I would add one more: the people in the US tipically make a lot of physical exercice until they end up college,so their bodies get used to a high caloric consumption that they burn out in their obsession with fitness. And then later, they begin to work for long hours in offices where they go to in their cars and eat a SL of fatty snacks to overcome the boredom, lack of good sex and the poor fullfilment that their ultramaterialistic lives represent in the end for themselves.

    2+2=4...

  • Mhession63

    This article strikes me as another excuse to blame our circumstances on external causes.  I live in a very walkable city, and I'm still overweight, though not terribly overweight. I know that more exercise and less food will thin me out. I haven't done that, and that's my choice/fault/cause, etc.  It's a choice - you find a way to get to your optimal weight (which is different for everybody, and certainly our society causes problems by overtly favoring those who are thinner), and do it. Don't blame your city, the food, etc. Just do it.

  • alanfh

    Unfortunately this is often related to the average income levels of a neighborhood. The likelihood of having a safe public park and near proximity to fresh fruits and vegetables tends to increase with the amount of wealth in an area, at least this holds true in the Chicagoland area. Currently, our FunderHut team is working on various initiatives with a local not-for-profit to bring urban farming and hydroponics to a lower-income area in North Chicago to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables to the local population.