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June 1, 2016 | 3 minute read

Walkable Neighborhoods linked to less obesity, diabetes

Rich or poor, people living in city neighborhoods with sidewalks and other easy-walking features have lower rates of obesity and diabetes during a 12-year period compared to those living in less walkable areas, finds a recent study. The study was published in JAMA.

With walking the most common type of activity, experts are increasingly looking into how people’s environment can play a role in increasing their physical activity. That, in turn, could improve overall health and help people stay a healthy weight, an important factor in reducing cancer risk.  

Study researchers analyzed health survey data among adults ages 30 to 64 living in 8,777 neighborhoods in Ontario, Canada. The data was both annual and biannual, from 2001 to 2012.  Then researchers matched the health information of residents to neighborhoods based on postal code.

Each neighborhood was scored for walkability based on four equally-weighted components: population density; residential density; walkable destinations, such as retail stores, libraries, banks and schools; and the number of intersections with at least 3 converging roads or pathway. Neighborhoods were scored on a scale of 0 to 100 then separated into five sections, from lowest to highest.

From 2001 to 2012 overweight and obesity increased in neighborhoods with the three lowest scores of walkability but did not increase among the top two walkable neighborhoods. This was after taking into account poverty, education, and unemployment and other factors that play a role. Diabetes incidence was lowest in the most walkable neighborhoods throughout the years studied and decreased in these same neighborhoods.

At each time point, rates of walking or cycling was higher in the more walkable neighborhoods.

The rates of overweight/obesity and of diabetes incidence over time is calculated by area, not by following specific individuals or group of people. This study does not show directly that people’s health changes as neighborhoods change. The study also did not take into account pedestrian safety, crime and other environmental factors. As the authors state, further research is needed.

The study was funded through an open operating grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), which is funded by an annual grant from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care

Andrew G. Rundle, DrPH; Steven B. Heymsfield, MD. Can Walkable Urban Design Play a Role in Reducing the Incidence of Obesity-Related Conditions? Editorial | May 24/31, 2016  JAMA. 2016;315(20):2175-2177. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.5635

Creatore MI, Glazier RH, Moineddin R, et al. Association of Neighborhood Walkability With Change in Overweight, Obesity, and Diabetes. JAMA. 2016;315(20):2211-2220. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.5898.

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