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Suburbia's Just Another Name for Fat City

Sprawling communities are home to heavier people

MONDAY, Aug. 30, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Do sprawling communities translate into expanding waistlines? Absolutely, according to a new study that adds to a growing body of evidence that suburban living makes people fat.

A Boston University researcher found that people who live in spread-out communities are heavier than their city-bound counterparts.

"Everybody thought that by building suburban communities, people would live healthier, but people aren't," said study author Russ Lopez, adjunct assistant professor of environmental health.

By examining U.S. Census figures from 2000, Lopez created a formula that measures the level of sprawl in 330 metropolitan areas. Under the formula, communities received high ratings if people lived farther apart from each other. Rural areas were not included.

Metropolitan areas with high levels of sprawl included Dolan, Ala., Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., Tyler, Tex., and greater Atlanta. Urban areas such as Boston, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and especially New York City, scored much lower because they're more densely populated.

Using figures from a 2000 federal health study, Lopez tried to see if higher levels of sprawl contributed to obesity. He reports his findings in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Obesity rates grew in communities as they rose up the 100-point sprawl scale, Lopez said. Even after he adjusted the statistics to remove any influence of different demographics -- in other words, making sure the numbers were comparing similar types of people -- residents of the sprawling Atlanta region were 17 percent more likely to be overweight than those who live in the more tightly squeezed Boston area.

Why does suburban living make people pack on more pounds? Pedestrian-unfriendly streets may be partially to blame by forcing people into their cars, Lopez said. But he thinks communities that are spread out create other problems.

"The tax of sprawl is on time," he said. "It becomes more difficult to go get milk at the store, to drop off your kids at school, to pick up your dry cleaning. That's the ultimate connection between sprawl and obesity. When people have less time, they have less time to be physically active and cook."

Tom Schmid is coordinator of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Active Community Environments (ACES) work group, which promotes physical activity to improve health. He said the new findings fit nicely into a series of studies that reveal how our communities affect our health.

In order for neighborhoods to encourage exercise, they must blend houses and places of business, he said. They must also allow people to easily get from one place to another.

"An old traditional design would have square blocks; to get from one point to another you have several ways to get there," he said. "But in suburbs, you have lots of cul-de-sacs. Some might live half a mile away as the crow flies, but you have to travel two miles to get there."

By contrast, in urban areas, "in order to get from place A to point B you have to walk there. It's just more convenient," Schmid said.

Lopez wants to see municipal planners and citizens realize the benefits of denser living. "I'm hoping for a day that people will say, 'If we don't build at higher density, it will end up being bad for our health.' "

More information

To learn more about the importance of physical activity, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Russ Lopez, D.Sc., adjunct assistant professor of environmental health, Boston University; Tom Schmid, Ph.D., coordinator, Active Community Environments (ACES) workgroup, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; September 2004, American Journal of Public Health
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