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April 22, 2015 | 3 minute read

Study: For Healthy Habits, Your Environment Matters

Have you ever resolved to eat healthier, only to be tempted by fast food options everywhere you look? Do you think you would exercise more if only you didn’t have to spend so much time in your car?

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Many in the public health community think that factors like these play a big role in what we eat, how much we move, and what we weigh. And many communities have tried to change these factors through so-called “environmental interventions.”

Researchers from Drexel University set out to test whether these environmental interventions work in a study recently published in the journal Obesity Reviews. They conducted a systematic review looking at the impact of various environmental interventions on diet, physical activity, and obesity. Their review included 37 natural and “quasi-“ experiments. About half of these studies focused on diet.

They found that studies involving mandatory changes to the food environment—such as laws banning trans fat in restaurants or requiring healthier foods to be offered in schools—were effective in their intended outcomes. Policies that make it easier for low-income people to use their benefits to buy fruits and vegetables were also effective.

In contrast, they found that two types of interventions– laws requiring that nutrition information be posted on restaurant menus and the addition of new supermarkets to previously underserved communities– were generally not effective in changing eating habits.

The most effective physical activity interventions were those that made it easier for people to walk or bike to get where they need to go. But most of the physical activity interventions only measured the type of physical activity being promoted rather than total physical activity. This means people may be substituting one type of physical activity for another.

If you’re concerned about keeping active and eating healthy, here are a few strategies you can try based on this research:

    • Change your own food environment. You may not have control over what is served in restaurants or schools, but you can control your home food environment. Check out our article on healthy home zones for ideas.
    • Educate yourself! Posting nutrition information on restaurant menus and building new supermarkets may be less effective because people don’t know how to interpret calorie information or prepare fresh, healthy foods. Our blog post ‘How many calories should my restaurant meal be?’ and our healthy recipes can help.
    • Think of active transportation as “bonus” exercise. If you start walking or biking to work, try to keep up with your previous exercise routine rather than substituting active transportation for other physical activity.

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