A study appearing in a recent issue of the journal Urban Studies suggests that the neighborhood a person resides in can motivate – or discourage – their likelihood of exercising or remaining physically active.
For the study, researchers from The Ohio State University, the University of Chicago and the University of Utah reviewed data from the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center Metro Survey, the 1990 U.S. Census, and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods Survey to determine the level of exercise of 8,782 residents of 373 neighborhoods in Chicago.
Based on this data, the researchers determined that social and economic characteristics were the most important determinants of physical activity. Specifically, residents of communities with higher levels of poverty, lower rates of education, and more female-headed families were less likely than others to exercise. In addition, the level of trust among neighbors, perceived violence in the community, and the degree to which they believed residents helped each other in the community all contributed to how much people exercised in a specific neighborhood. The researchers note that these factors were more important for women than for men in determining physical activity levels. In addition, the study found that contrary to previous reports, once neighborhood factors were taken into account, African Americans exercised about as much as white residents did.
Noting that other studies have suggested that exercise levels can be increased by improving the physical components of a neighborhood – such as creating high-quality parks, adding sidewalks and opening recreation centers and gyms – the study’s lead author suggests that “social environment in a neighborhood needs to be considered along with the physical environment.”
In recent years, the term “built environment” has taken off in the public health arena as a buzzword for how your environment influences activity in the community. Specifically, the built environment refers to the layout of a neighborhood or city, the availability of parks and recreational centers, the use of sidewalks to promote walkability, access to fresh produce and other healthful foods, and other lifestyle influences.
However, based on this study, it might be wise to expand this concept to include factors that influence the safety and sense of community within a neighborhood. When planning new exercise areas, for example, developers should focus on activities that might increase the sense of community, such as adding seating areas where parents can gather or offer classes at recreational centers that will appeal to the needs of the community. To increase the sense of safety in the neighborhood, meanwhile, developers should also consider installing additional lighting, positioning parks in highly trafficked areas or calling in community volunteers or organizations to “police” the exercise areas and ensure that they are being used appropriately.
It seems that when it comes to parks in “shady” parts of town, the theory that “if you build it they will come” might not hold true. Instead, it might be that yes, you can build it, but you’re going to need to put a lot more effort into making people believe that it is something they should participate in to make it truly successful.