We all know that an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can result in weight gain and obesity, but new research also shows that where you live may be playing a role as well. Researchers from sixteen European, Asian and North American universities and research institutes assessed 14,222 people to determine whether there may be a correlation between neighborhood features and obesity.
The study participants lived in environmentally and culturally diverse countries, including: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, the study found three neighborhood features that played a significant role in determining a person’s weight status, including:
1. Safety from traffic: This neighborhood factor played the greatest role in determining whether study participants were overweight (keep in mind that diet and exercise were not a part of this study). The study suggests that creating walking or cycling routes, reducing traffic speeds and finding ways to minimize traffic volume may positively impact the health of the community by increasing fitness and reducing obesity levels of its members.
2. Close proximity to several local destinations: When there are amenities and commercial services within walking distance of homes, people frequently make the effort to walk rather than look for parking, which reduces the residents’ likelihood of being overweight or obese.
3. Safety from crime: The researchers found that people are more likely to be heavier or overweight when they report safety from crime as a concern in their neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the areas with higher crime rates also have higher levels of overweight or obese citizens, likely because people feel unsafe if they walk places.
The importance of walkability in urban planning not only reduces traffic congestion and other obvious municipal planning issues, it also affects the health of its citizens and therefore the burden on municipal hospital and other medical services. Excess weight and obesity have been linked with higher rates of many other health conditions, including: heart disease and diabetes.
Obesity isn’t the only health concern that has been linked to location. An earlier study conducted by the University of Exeter in the UK and the University of Trnava in Slovakia found that access to urban greenspace also impacts emotional well-being, with a reduced incidence of depression and anti-depressant medication use in those who live in more forested areas than those who do not.
Another earlier study published in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that those who walked outdoors in nature have a significantly reduced risk of mental illness, compared to those who simply walked in urban areas.
As municipalities and towns deal with higher population levels and dwindling green spaces, these studies show the importance of creating “livable” communities that support the health of their residents.