Graffiti, Litter May Help Spur Obesity

And cleaner, greener environments get people exercising, study suggests

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Aug. 19, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- British researchers think there's a link between graffiti and obesity.

People who live in city areas with little green space, lots of graffiti and litter are more likely to be obese, compared with people living in city areas with lots of greenery, the researchers claim in a new report.

"People who live in more pleasant and attractive environments, which in our study was assessed by levels of greenery, are much more likely to be physically active and not to be overweight or obese," said study author Anne Ellaway, a senior science officer in the Medical Research Council's Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

"Conversely, in less attractive areas, those with lots of graffiti, litter and dog mess, people are more likely to be overweight or obese and to take less exercise," she added.

Their report appears in the Aug. 18 online issue of the British Medical Journal.

In their study, Ellaway's team analyzed data from a large housing and health survey conducted in eight European cities in 2002 and 2003. Using questionnaires, the researchers collected data on the height and weight of nearly 7,000 people, which they then used to calculate body weight and levels of physical activity.

The researchers then looked at the residential environment, including the amount of graffiti, litter and dog mess, as well as levels of vegetation and greenery.

Ellaway's team found that people surrounded by high levels of greenery were more than three times more likely to be physical active, and 40 percent less likely to be overweight or obese compared with people in other environments.

Specifically, people who lived in environments that had high levels of graffiti, litter and other neighborhood mess were 50 percent less physically active and 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

Given these findings, Ellaway believes that "more effort needs to be directed to upgrading the local environment in rundown areas to encourage people to go out more and be physically active."

One expert said the study doesn't answer which comes first -- healthy living or clean, green environments.

"The design of this study precludes conclusions about causality," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "It may be that attractive neighborhoods make sedentary people more active, but it may also be that active people congregate where the setting is attractive and inviting," he said.

"For now, we can add to the list of reasons for controlling litter and graffiti the possibility that when the grass is truly greener on the other side of the fence, folks may well go for a walk to get there," Katz said.

Another expert agreed that the study raises more questions than it answers.

"The reported differences in physical activity and overweight are quite dramatic, if the only differences across residential environments are in amounts of greenery and litter/graffiti," said Reid Ewing, a research professor at the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland.

"While the authors apparently controlled for sociodemographic of respondents, I wonder if they also controlled for differences in the physical environments of respondents beyond those measured -- differences that may confound their results," he said.

Ewing noted that access to trails and recreational facilities is known to affect physical activity.

"Could they be picking up that effect in their greenery rating?" Ewing asked. "And physical activity is known to vary with crime rates -- could that effect be soaked up by their litter/graffiti variable?"

There is also the tricky issue of people who would be active anyway selecting neighborhoods where it is easy and pleasant to be active, Ewing said. "The environment in that case doesn't shape the individual, but rather the individual selects the environment."

More information

Activity by Design can tell you more about creating environments that increase physical activity.

SOURCES: Anne Ellaway, M.Sc., senior science officer, Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom; Reid Ewing, Ph.D., research professor, National Center for Smart Growth, University of Maryland, College Park; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Aug. 18, 2005, British Medical Journal online

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