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.