When nutritionists and health experts talk about how to stay healthy, they often include two simple tips: Get exercise and eat right. But many neighborhoods lack parks to play or exercise in, and supermarkets may be a drive away. So staying healthy close to home might be a tall order for some kids.
Two new studies show that children who live close to parks and markets that sell fresh food are half as likely to be obese as children who live far from these places. Obese people are extremely overweight, and those extra pounds are tied to an increase in a person’s risk for many different diseases and serious medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The research reveals “the influence of environmental factors on people’s health, in particular obesity,” Laura Kettel Khan, a nutritionist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told Science News.
Lawrence Frank, an urban planner and public health researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, led one of the studies. Urban planners study the design of cities and work to build better places to live. He and his colleagues looked at hundreds of neighborhoods in California’s San Diego County and in Washington’s King County, which includes Seattle.
They judged each neighborhood based on nutrition and physical activity. The neighborhoods that scored highest on nutrition had a supermarket nearby that sold fresh produce and few fast food restaurants in the area. Neighborhoods that scored highest on physical activity had parks and were “walkable,” which means residents can walk to many places they’d want to go.
The researchers then looked at health information from 681 children, ages 6 to 11, who lived in those areas. About 1 in 12 children who lived in neighborhoods near parks or supermarkets were obese. In neighborhoods lacking parks and markets, the obesity rate among children doubled, to about 1 in 6.
The work “will inform the way we think about cities and how to design neighborhoods,” Jennifer Black told Science News. Black, who did not work on the new studies, is a nutritionist at the University of British Columbia. “We have a pretty strong sense that if it’s easier for people to safely and comfortably walk to the kinds of amenities they want, they will be more likely to be physically active and spend less time driving,” she adds.
The researchers also found that newer neighborhoods scored lower than older neighborhoods, which suggests that some new housing developments may work against the health of the people who live there.
Many communities no longer provide parks and markets within walking distance, Frank told Science News. “If we want to reverse the obesity epidemic, we need to reverse the way we’re building our communities.”
obese Extremely overweight.
epidemic A sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon.
amenity A desirable or useful feature or facility of a building or place.