July 14, 2006

Can Your Community Make You Heavier?

photo of a small town main street area

Some recent studies suggest that an urban community's design can affect how heavy its residents are. A new study suggests that community features can also affect obesity in rural neighborhoods. Researchers at Saint Louis University's School of Public Health have linked several environmental factors, including being far from a recreational facility and feeling unsafe from crime or traffic, with a higher risk of obesity in rural communities.

The researchers, with funding from NIH's National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, surveyed over 2,500 people by telephone in 13 communities in rural regions of Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. They were asked their height and weight and about their diets and physical activity levels, along with a series of questions about their communities. The results were published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Those who said they were far from a recreational facility or a walking or biking trail were more likely to be obese. Also more likely to be obese were those who said they weren't within walking distance of local destinations like a library, grocery store or post office. Feeling unsafe from traffic and crime were both associated with being obese, particularly among women. People who perceived their community as unpleasant were more likely to be obese as well, particularly among higher income people.

Like many other studies, this one found that people who got little physical activity and had high amounts of fat in their diets were more likely to be obese. The availability and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables, however, had no link with obesity.

The results of this study suggest that the rural neighborhood environment affects obesity by influencing how much physical activity people get. However, it doesn't prove the case. Obese people who live sedentary lives may be more likely to choose communities with fewer opportunities for physical activity in the first place. They may also simply be less aware of the opportunities around them. Further studies will reveal whether the way a community is designed can really affect how much the people who live there weigh.

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