It’s My Neighbors Fault I’m Fat

Basketball CourtA 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.

Frisbee in Central Park

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.

Transparent Reality, jaqian Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Dining Out Danger?

The Poor Body

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8 thoughts on “It’s My Neighbors Fault I’m Fat”

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  1. This is an interesting idea. I do think neighborhood makes a difference in physical activity. People tend to walk more in neighborhoods where stores and schools and workplaces are nearby, and where streets are pleasant/well designed for walking. It also makes sense that having plenty of pleasant and safe parks would inspire people to exercise.

    Without having read the original study though (just this piece and the linked article), it does seem that there is more of an association between neighborhood and exercise than proof that neighborhood is a clearly determining factor in exercise level. There are other factors associated with neighborhoods, and I’m unclear how many of those the study controlled for. If someone is, say, working three (not physically intense) jobs because they’re struggling in poverty with a family to raise, they’re probably not going to find time to exercise – and they’re probably going to live in a low-income neighborhood with fewer parks and not-so-nice streets and so forth. Fixing up the neighborhood isn’t going to make it much easier for that person to exercise.

    I guess I’m impatient with studies that try to find the one magic bullet. I feel like we look for magic bullets because they appeal to us, and because the complex reality of so many things being responsible for health problems (diet, income disparity, neighborhoods, media messaging, discrimination, education, etc) is too daunting.

    Anyway, rant aside, I do find this stuff about neighborhoods interesting.

  2. I don’t think the study portrayed parks as a magic bullet. Rather, the lack of safe spaces to walk and move is one reason why people are unfit. If we want to become a healthier nation, we need to address each factor that influences health from physical activity to diet to stress reduction.

  3. problem is that neighborhood also plays into socio-economic status which we KNOW impacts all this huh?


  4. Yesterday my husband and I decided to go to Walden Pond. We don’t have a car, but it’s only about a mile and a half from the nearest commuter rail station. For two car-free urbanites, that’s a pretty easy walk.

    Or so we thought. Most of the route from the station to the park has no sidewalks! And we weren’t walking through the suburban office park wasteland, either – these were residential neighborhoods, and judging by the sizes of the houses and lots, not poor ones, either.

    So it is possible to live a mile from Walden Pond, which is a wonderful place to go hiking or swimming, and be unable to walk there. (We did it, but we were a little nervous about our safety.) We were amused when we arrived at the park and found a $5 “entrance fee” that turned out to be a $5 parking fee. Even the state, which runs the park, assumed that no one would walk. (We made a $5 donation anyway.)

    I’m telling this story mostly because it shows that it’s not just poor people who have terrible conditions for the most basic of human activities – walking. The most interesting part is that, for the small stretch of the route that did have sidewalks, there were dozens of people out enjoying the New England late winter sunshine. For the stretch without sidewalks, we were the only ones. If you build it, they will come?