The design of neighborhood streets, schools and businesses may have a big impact on resident health, according to a recent study that links walkable urban communities to lower rates of overweight, obesity and diabetes.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this study looked at the impact of neighborhood walkability on weight and health. It’s well established that exercise helps promote a healthy weight and wards off chronic disease. But in today’s world, most adults are sedentary and get far less than the recommended levels of physical activity each week. Experts wonder if our physical environment may be to blame.
To learn more, researchers analyzed health and walkability data from more than 8,777 urban neighborhoods in Ontario, Canada. Using data from biannual surveys and administrative health care databases, researchers calculated obesity and diabetes rates for each community from 2001–2012. The analysis included a nationally representative group of adults 30–64 years old.
Researchers then assigned a walkability score to each neighborhood, based on factors like street design, population density and the location of schools and businesses. Scores ranged from 0–100, with higher scores indicating more walkability.
After analyzing results, researchers found that higher neighborhood walkability was associated with lower rates of overweight, obesity and diabetes between 2001 and 2012.
In 2001, only 43% of adults in the most walkable neighborhoods were overweight or obese, compared to 53% of those with the lowest walkability. Between 2001 and 2012, overweight and obesity rates increased in the least walkable communities, yet stayed the same in areas of high walkability.
Diabetes rates were also significantly lower in more walkable neighborhoods compared to those with the lowest walkability. Diabetes rates declined from 2001–2012 in walkable areas but remained the same in the least walkable neighborhoods.
Researchers also note that resident characteristics were similar across all neighborhoods. However, poverty rates were higher in the more walkable urban areas than those with the least walkability.
According to authors, findings highlight the importance of our physical environment when it comes to physical activity and health. The easier it is to incorporate exercise into our day, the more likely we are to be more active. Being able to walk to work, school or businesses can help increase physical activity.
While findings are encouraging, authors also recommend more research on the issue. This study did not take into account factors like safety or changes in overall body weight. According to experts, additional research is needed to assess whether neighborhood walkability has a direct, causal impact on weight and health.