City Dwellers Who Walk Less Likely to Get Fat or Diabetes

Where you live may affect your decisions and your health, say researchers who suggest designing cities to be better for walking could reduce diabetes.

The more “walkable” the neighborhood you live in, the less likely you are to become obese or develop diabetes. By encouraging physical activity, neighborhoods where it is easy to walk to more locations in 10 minutes produced reduced obesity rates, said Gillian Booth, the lead researcher.

The researchers examined neighborhoods in southern Ontario over 10 years, ending in 2012. Overweight and obesity rates dropped 9 percent in the most walkable areas and rose by 13 percent in less walkable areas. The incidence of diabetes fell 7 percent in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

“The way we design our cities has a huge impact on our health,” said Booth, a research scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, in a telephone interview. “As a society we’ve kind of engineered physical activity out of our lives.”

Walkability is linked to obesity and diabetes in research by Booth and Marisa Creatore, an epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital. Booth presented the research today at the American Diabetes Association conference in San Francisco.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Rising health-care costs and a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol, are attributed to the epidemic.

Walkability Index

The researchers measured “walkability” with an index they created that accounts for population and dwelling density, the connectedness of streets and the number of retail outlets and services nearby. Booth said the number of stores, parks and services people could walk to within 10 minutes, or about half a mile, was used because previous research shows people are more inclined to walk somewhere within that distance.

“When you get into a more suburban area you get into zoning where residential and commercial areas are farther away,‘‘ Booth said. ‘‘You don’t have as many destinations that people can walk to.‘‘

The connection between the ‘‘built environment‘‘ and health has drawn increasing attention from public health professionals at the local and national level, said Roger Millar, vice president of Smart Growth America and director of the National Complete Streets Coalition.

When local governments make decisions about city planning, they consider the financial cost and benefit, he said. With obesity, there’s a huge financial dimension for individuals and communities, according to Millar.

‘Financial Benefit’

‘‘If you can do things with your built environment that allow people to be healthy there’s a financial benefit,‘‘ Millar said. ‘‘Think of the cost of obesity.‘‘

Health-care costs associated with obesity account for about 21 percent of total health-care spending in the U.S. in 2005, according to a 2012 study by Cornell researchers.

Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said research in this area reflects relatively new thinking about the factors that cause obesity and diabetes. While it used to be considered primarily an individual problem, evidence shows there is an environmental and social aspect, he said.

‘‘If we can address some societal factors like the neighborhood characteristics, the design of some of the cities, it’s very important to change the habits and dietary patterns and reduce obesity on the micro-level,‘‘ Hu said.