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Walkable Neighborhoods Keep the Pounds Off

Older, densely populated areas get people moving, study finds

TUESDAY, July 29, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Older, more feet-friendly neighborhoods can help keep waistlines trim, U.S. researchers report.

"We were excited to find that two easily available census measures of diverse destinations -- living in an older neighborhood and higher proportion of residents who walk to work -- both predict lower weight," said lead researcher Barbara Brown, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

"Older neighborhoods often have a pattern of design features like narrow streets, tree-shaded sidewalks, and useful destinations like corner stores, that make walking interesting, pleasant and useful," Brown said.

The report was published in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

For the study, Brown's team collected data on almost 454,000 people living in Salt Lake County, Utah. Based on height and weight data from the participants' drivers' licenses, the researchers calculated the body-mass index of these individuals.

They found that neighborhood type did seem to be correlated to body weight. For example, a man of average size -- 6 feet tall weighing 200 pounds -- weighed 10 pounds less if he lived in an older, more walkable neighborhood. A woman of average size -- 5'5" tall weighing 149 pounds -- was six pounds lighter if she lived in a similar area versus a newer, less pedestrian-friendly locale.

Fewer than 3 percent of U.S. residents do report that they walk to work, Brown said. "Although we did not measure walking directly, it would make sense that residents walk more in neighborhoods designed with more walkability, thus lowering their risks of obesity," she said.

By 2030, about half the built space needed in the United States will have been built or renovated since 2000, the study authors noted. That means there's a real opportunity to think about redesigning neighborhoods to achieve healthier (and cost-saving) goals for residents, Brown said.

"Already, people are thinking about walking or biking or walking to transit more due to the cost of gas," Brown said. "Our study suggests you can achieve multiple goals of residents by designing walkable neighborhoods. Residents could enjoy less dependence on their cars, less impact on their wallets, and greater health benefits if they can walk to more destinations," she said.

Dr. David Katz, a director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, said the obesity epidemic is largely a byproduct of recent historical developments.

"Throughout most of human history, physical activity was an unavoidable part of everyone's daily routine," Katz noted. "We have engineered a modern food supply that offers virtually continuous and ubiquitous access to a tasty excess of calories and engineered communities and technologies that make muscle power all but obsolete," he said.

An association between the walkability of a neighborhood and reduced risk of obesity is just what common sense would suggest, Katz said. "Build neighborhoods where physical activity is encouraged. Lesser rates of obesity and better health are apt to follow," he said.

More information

For more on staying slim and healthy, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Barbara Brown, Ph.D., professor, family and consumer studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn; September 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine
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