Neighborhood layout could turn drivers into walkers
People who live in neighborhoods where stores, schools and homes are within walking or cycling distance from each other make almost twice as many weekly trips on foot as residents of less “walkable” neighborhoods, according to new research.
And all that car-free traveling can add up to better health: One or two extra walking trips a week can burn off enough calories to drop nearly two pounds in a year, which is about how much weight American adults gain annually.
If a large proportion of a population could walk to work or errands, “it would have a significant public health impact,” say Brian E. Saelens, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and colleagues.
Almost 83 percent of all trips are quick, close to home and not work-related, making them good candidates for walking or cycling, according to the researchers.
Saelens and colleagues analyzed several studies of neighborhood design and walking and cycling rates, and found that people who lived in walkable communities did choose to leave their cars behind more often.
Walkable neighborhoods are densely populated, with a mix of commercial and residential buildings, and have high street connectivity, or many different and relatively short ways to get from point A to point B, say the researchers.
Extra work- and errand-related trips make up most of the difference in foot travel rates between these and less walkable communities, which suggests that the physical environment, not exercise or recreation preferences, is at least partially responsible for the difference.
The findings are encouraging for health researchers and policymakers, since they reflect potential differences in physical activity across an entire population rather than just a small group of motivated volunteers as in many other studies of health behavior.
This may mean that changes in neighborhood design could bring about significant changes in a community’s overall health, the researchers conclude.
“The other fundamental difference is that changes in the environment can be expected to be relatively permanent, in stark contrast to the well-documented lack of maintenance of health behavior change programs,” Saelens and colleagues say.
Health care professionals should use information from transportation and urban planning studies to learn more about how the physical environment affects health behaviors, say the researchers.
“A growing number of policy experts, urban planners and transportation experts are concerned that we have built our communities so it is difficult, and in many cases dangerous, to walk or bike and have thus ‘engineered’ physical activity out of our daily lives,” Saelens and colleagues say.
The study is published in the March-April issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
By Becky Ham, Staff Writer
Health Behavior News Service
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Jim Feuer | EurekAlert!