Nature of Neighborhoods Affects Health

Nature of Neighborhoods Affects HealthNature of Neighborhoods Affects Health

A major European study, published in Obesity Reviews, shows that an individual’s health behavior and body mass index are closely related to their local area.

It is no surprise that where we live affects our health, but this is the first major study to use online street views to assess the exercise and dietary habits of neighborhoods.

The study took four years to complete and involved data from nearly 6,000 people living in major cities across Europe.

It looked at the nature of local neighborhoods, tallying self-reported perceptions of the environment by residents with objective measures based on Google Street View, reported.

It also involved estimates of individual health behaviors, social integration and community support.

Many measures related to the local environment appear to be linked to health behavior and the risk of developing obesity, according to the study results.

Levels of physical activity, self-rated health, happiness and neighborhood preference were closely associated with residents’ perception and use of their neighborhood.

Researchers noted a significant variation in the presence of food outlets, outdoor recreation facilities and green spaces between the cities surveyed.

Residents who reported higher levels of social integration also rated their health more highly, were less likely to be obese and consumed more fruit.

However, the same group tended to spend more time sitting down and was less involved in physical activity that required transportation.

As part of the study, participants had to describe the boundaries of their residential neighborhood using a map and a web-based tool.

 Access to Urban Opportunities

Older adults tended to define smaller neighborhoods than younger adults. Women mostly defined smaller neighborhoods than men, while higher educational levels were mostly associated with larger self-defined neighborhoods.

Prof. Jean-Michel Oppert, of Pitie-Salpetriere University Hospital, Paris, speculates that younger residents, men and those with a higher educational level move around more or live in places with greater access to urban opportunities such as services, transport and social activities. This would increase the space where activities are performed.

The space of the self-defined neighborhood also expanded the longer a person lived in an area, possibly because longer residency implies more social activities and relationships in the community and greater awareness of local facilities.

Researchers point out that the findings have implications for health behaviors and outcomes such as obesity. They urge architects and urban planners to consider such factors when designing residential areas.

Lead researcher Jeroen Lakerveld, of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, says:

“Urban planners and policy makers have a responsibility to ensure that the neighborhoods they design and the facilities and businesses that the neighborhoods contain will promote healthy behavior and is protective against unhealthy behaviors.”

The best neighborhoods are those which have the facilities to support good health and also can encourage social networking and community support.