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Researchers looking at how neighborhoods contribute to healthy lifestyles


Families living in the Nellies Cave Park area near Virginia Tech are helping researchers learn about healthy lifestyles and in return are getting information about their own health.

The project by nutrition researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is part of efforts to learn how a neighborhood influences physical activity and diet.

"We think that town planners, zoning administrators, parks and recreation planners and other community leaders will be able to use this kind of information to understand such healthy lifestyle considerations as how walking trails might be built close to housing in town planning," said Kathy Hosig, associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise.

The researchers selected the Nellies Cave Park region because it has a variety of environments built into the area. There are different types of housing from apartments to condominiums to residences with large lots. There are trails, parks, and housing areas that have sidewalks and others that do not have sidewalks. There are families with small children and others with older children, single individuals of many different ages and a diversity of ethnic groups. Some of the people have lived there many years and others are new to the area.

"Our goal is a better understanding of the roles of the built environment on physical activities of the individuals who live in that environment," Hosig said. Other studies have shown increased physical activities to be associated with healthier dietary habits such as increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dietary fiber and lower consumption of sodium and percentage of calories from fat.

Studying whether the neighborhood and community level physical environment is a variable that influences physical activity is part of what the Virginia Tech researchers are looking at in the Nellies Cave Park area.

Hosig said the researchers will look at the health condition of the families who live near walking or bicycling trails, sidewalks, parks, and other such features used for physical activities. They also will consider some of the other environmental factors such as perceived safety in the neighborhood, whether automotive traffic is heavy or not, and the frequency of seeing others exercising.

A tangible benefit to those who are part of the study is a gift card to make purchases at Kroger, Hosig said. The other benefit is valuable to their understanding of their own health. They get a detailed report on their own physical condition including a body composition analysis and a behavior risk factor survey with questions related to physical activity. The researchers will measure height, weight, waist and hip circumference, and skin-fold as well as do an analysis of food consumed.

That information along with the analysis of the built environment will give the researchers a way to understand another angle in the design of neighborhoods.

Mary Ann Johnson | EurekAlert!
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