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Obesity Risk Greater in Newer Communities

July 29, 2008 -- Does living in the suburbs make people fatter?

New research suggests that it might for those who reside in neighborhoods designed more for cars than foot traffic.

People in the study who lived in the most walkable neighborhoods weighed an average of 8 pounds less than people who lived in the least walkable areas.

Neighborhoods built before 1950 tended to have sidewalks and other characteristics that made them more accessible to pedestrians, including being more densely populated and having restaurants and other businesses nearby, lead researcher Ken R. Smith, PhD, tells WebMD.

In general, newer neighborhoods offered fewer opportunities for walking.

The study appears in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“We aren’t saying the move from older to newer neighborhoods is the cause of the obesity epidemic, but it may be a factor,” Smith says.

Walk Less, Weigh More

In an effort to test the theory, Smith and colleagues calculated the body mass index (BMI) of 453,927 residents of Salt Lake County, Utah, using height and weight data from their driver’s license applications. Adults between the ages of 25 and 64 were included in the analysis.

The researchers also reviewed census data that included information about the neighborhoods where the residents lived.

In general, the research suggested that the more walkable a neighborhood was, the less likely its residents were to become overweight or obese.

Based upon the analysis, a man of average height and weight who lived in the most walkable neighborhood in Salt Lake County would be expected to weigh an average of 10 pounds less than a man living in the least walkable neighborhood. For women, the difference would be 6 pounds.

Smith says the growing emphasis on designing pedestrian-friendly places for people to live, work, and play could have a large, positive impact on health in the future.

He cites a recent report from the Brookings Institution predicting that by the year 2030 half the buildings in the United States will have been built since 2000.

“That represents a huge opportunity to think about how we are building our communities and to make them better places, both from a health and an environmental standpoint,” he says.

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