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Unpleasant Surroundings May Up Obesity Risk

Study Shows Living Near Litter and Graffiti May Affect Physical Activity

WebMD Health News

Aug. 18, 2005 -- People who live in areas with little greenery and lots of litter and graffiti may be up to 50% more likely to be obese as residents of neighborhoods with an abundance of trees and clean, open space.

More than 1.2 billion people in the world are officially classified as overweight, according to the World Health Organization.

Much of that is blamed on the imbalance between excess calories being consumed and little physical activity. What else accounts for the growing obesity epidemic?

The authors of a new study think the problem may have a lot to do with whether or not we live in a pleasant environment.

The study appeared on BMJ.com.

"There is growing recognition that, independent of individual characteristics, place of residence may be associated with health outcomes, including body size and health related behaviors, such as level of physical exercise. However, few studies have explored which features of the local neighborhood might be related to these outcomes or behaviors," write the authors.

Physical Surroundings and Health

Research has suggested that urban dwellers surrounded by graffiti and litter may be less healthy on the whole. With this in mind, the authors set out to test the theory that areas that are pleasant and appealing, with lots of trees and little or no litter, etc., may encourage people to exercise, thus lowering the risk of becoming obese.

In other words, we may be more likely to exercise if we live in a pleasant environment.

Incorporating data from the LARES study (Large Analysis of European Housing and Health Status), conducted in 2002-2003 in eight European cities, they created a questionnaire to capture data reported by occupants on their overall health, including self-assessed height and weight.

The information was then used to calculate participants' body mass index (BMI -- an indirect measure of body fat) and level of physical activity. They conducted face-to-face interviews to find out about the participants' dwellings and physical surroundings.

Using an inspection sheet, trained surveyors assessed their immediate residential environment. Criteria included the amount of graffiti, litter, and dog excrement, as well as the amount of greenery and vegetation visible from the dwelling and from the streets immediately surrounding it.

More Likely to Exercise

"For participants whose residential environment contains high levels of greenery, the likelihood of being more physically active is more than three times as high, and the likelihood of being overweight and obese is about 40% less. Conversely, for participants whose residential environment contained high levels of incivilities, the likelihood of being more physically active is about 50% less, and the likelihood of being overweight or obese or overweight is about 50% higher," the authors write.

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