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
“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
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
“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.
Walkability a Goal
This is the goal of the CDC’s ‘Healthy Places’ initiative, says Andrew
Dannenberg, MD, MPH, of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.
“Our mission is to get health on the table when building decisions are being
made,” he says. “This has not been done much in the past, but awareness is
The recent stratospheric rise in gas prices and concerns about climate
change have helped focus attention on the subject, but it is still too soon to
know if the attention will lead to change, Dannenberg says.
The CDC’s ‘Healthy Places’ web site makes it clear that the challenge is
daunting, as it calls for substantive changes with regard to future growth.
“Today, typical suburban homes sit in cul-de-sac subdivisions that empty out
onto high volume roads,” it reads. “Zoning laws encourage the separation of
residential areas from schools and shopping malls by long and often dangerous
travel distances. Elementary school bicycle racks stand empty as parents fear
for their children’s safety on narrow or traffic-laden roads. (And) pedestrians
take risks as they cross dangerous intersections in communities where safe
crosswalks are all but nonexistent,” the CDC statement reads.