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Staffs research maps out a healthier future


Groundbreaking research which looks at obesity and links it with distance to the nearest fast food outlet is to be carried out in Stoke-on-Trent.

Researchers from Staffordshire University have secured around £300,000 to map lifestyle behaviour in the City and link these to health outcomes.

The project is one of 26 successful projects announced under the National Prevention Research Initiative*, which was set up to stimulate high quality research aimed at the prevention of killer diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

The research, which will be managed by the Medical Research Council, is part of a co-ordinated UK initiative aimed at tackling the rising burden of chronic disease and improving public health

Principal Investigator, Dr Rachel Davey from the Centre for Sport and Exercise Research, said: "For example, we’ll be looking at physical activity level and obesity and how this is related to people’s proximity to food outlets, accessibility to green spaces and recreational/leisure facilities. It’s the first project we’re aware of in the UK that focuses on a socio-environmental approach to disease prevention.”

The project comes on the back of the Wanless report which criticised the NHS for being too focused on cures and called for people and communities to become more fully engaged with their own health.

Co-researcher Professor Tom Cochrane added: "Living in some urban environment can be bad for your health and much of Stoke-on-Trent is not conducive to walking, cycling or supportive of a ‘healthier lifestyle’. We will be surveying a cross section of the local population to find out how they perceive their environment, how much accessibility they have to green spaces and how crime or the fear of crime might be a factor in physical activity behaviour. Once we’ve identified that we’ll be in a position to inform policy at both local and national level and change things for the better”.

Staffordshire University geographers Graham Smith and Jon Fairburn will lead the mapping phase of the project.

Graham said “We will be using sophisticated software known as geographical information systems which allows us to map and analyse digital map data. In this way we can calculate precise distances to the nearest green space or bus stop. We can look at the density of food outlets (e.g. fast food, corner shops, supermarkets) in a neighbourhood. We will also be examining the issue of land use mix in terms of industrial and residential areas and the effect of population and housing density on physical activity.

"Associated factors such as the weather or crime will also be examined. For example, fear of crime is known to deter the use of parks and green spaces in some areas. However these can be overcome through good management and design of green spaces. Proximity to green space is important because the overwhelming majority of people using green space get there on foot.”

Jon added “Studies in Finland, Canada and the USA have all found that proximity to green spaces was associated with higher house prices, this is particularly relevant given the housing market renewal programme that is occurring in North Staffordshire and the North of England. Furthermore, maintaining green spaces in cities is important not only because they help improve local air quality by sifting out pollutants but also they help to regulate temperature. This will be increasingly important if climate change continues to provide us with hotter summers. The widespread deaths which occurred in French cities a couple of years ago showed the importance of this issue.

He added: “Well over half of the city falls into the bottom 20% of areas for health in England under the Index of Multiple Deprivation. Hopefully, this research can point the way as to how to make our urban areas healthier places to live and work in”.

Studies in America and Australia have suggested that certain urban forms do encourage people to take more exercise whether through walking or cycling but as urban forms vary between countries we need to find out the important factors for the UK.”

Dr Davey added: “Although the project is to be carried out in Stoke-on-Trent, the underlying approach could apply in any urban city in the UK. We have a wide range of regional and local partners involved in this project including Stoke-on-Trent City Council, RENEW North Staffordshire, Health Promotion Directorate and Primary Care Trusts, so collectively we should benefit from the collaboration.”

Health minister Jane Kennedy said: “Good quality research on how best to change people’s behaviour is vital if we are to improve public health and prevent illness and death from heart disease and diabetes”.

Maria Scrivens | alfa
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