Walkable neighborhoods reduce obesity rates

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

Where you live may have a large effect on what you weigh, found a study conducted by professors in the U’s family and consumer studies department.

Professors presented their findings-that residents’ obesity rates are related to the way their neighborhoods are designed-Sept. 11 at a seminar in Orson Spencer Hall. The Institute of Public and International Affairs produced the seminar, “Spatial Variation in Body Mass Indices and the Implications for Public Policy,” as part of its monthly “Policy at the Podium” series.

“We wanted to know what it is about the way a city or town is laid out that might affect why we’re getting heavier as a people,” said Ken Smith, a professor in family and consumer studies.

The state gave the researchers- Smith, Barbara Brown, Cathleen Zick, Jessie Fan, Lorie Kowaleski-Jones and Harvey Miller-access to the heights, weights and addresses listed on Salt Lake County drivers’ licenses.

With this information, the researchers were able to calculate participants’ Body Mass Index (BMI) and correlate it to where they live.

Using information from the 2000 census, they were able to divide Salt Lake County into regions of about 1,500 people and linked the BMIs of the people in these neighborhoods to the neighborhood’s “walkability,” or the likelihood of people to walk places instead of drive.

Although population density did not have a significant effect on obesity rates, the design of the neighborhood, as well as the diversity in land use, did have an effect. The researchers found that people are more likely to walk in neighborhoods with easier and more direct routes, more intersections and closer access to offices, schools and grocery stores. Older neighborhoods also tend to have lower BMI rates.

Barbara Brown, environmental psychologist in the family and consumer studies department, spearheaded the project.

“When the environment suggests that you drive instead of walk, the effects are not as immediately noticeable as a toxic crisis, but non-walkable environments are toxic in the long run,” she said. “Many of the diseases we get today are chronic diseases that stem from the way we live every day.”

Redesigning new neighborhoods to make them more walkable could have a positive impact on fighting obesity trends, Brown and her colleagues found.

The study stated that a 130-pound woman who spends two more minutes a day climbing stairs will burn 5,800 calories a year-a 1.5-pound weight loss. The average adult gains 1 to 2 pounds a year, meaning that the extra two minutes of walking a day could prevent a 15-pound weight gain across a 10-year span.

But just because people are able to walk in their neighborhoods doesn’t mean they always do so, said Malerie Gore, a junior in elementary education.

“In my neighborhood in Sandy, you could walk to the store, but everybody’s lazy-they would rather drive.”

But the study found that the region just west of the U’s Presidents’ Circle, between 200 South, University South Temple and 1200 East, where many students live and walk to school, has one of the lowest BMI rates in Salt Lake County.

The researchers hope to expand their investigation to include the rest of Utah. They are currently working with the Utah Transit Authority to encourage use of public transportation and the organization Envision Utah to redesign neighborhoods to promote healthier habits.