Where you live affects your health and risk of obesity

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WHERE do you live, and how do you feel about your neighbourhood? A major European study, published in Obesity Reviews, shows that an individual’s health behaviour and body mass index are closely related to their local area. It is no surprise that where we live affects our health, but this is the first major study to use online street views to assess the exercise and dietary habits of neighbourhoods.
The study took 4 years to complete and involved data from nearly 6,000 people living in major cities across Europe. It looked at the nature of local neighbourhoods, tallying self-reported perceptions of the environment by residents with objective measures based on Google Street View. It also involved estimates of individual health behaviours, social integration and community support.
Many measures related to the local environment appear to be linked to health behaviour and the risk of developing obesity, according to the study results. Levels of physical activity, self-rated health, happiness and neighbourhood preference were closely associated with residents’ perception and use of their neighbourhood. People living in socioeconomically deprived areas were less likely to see their area as conducive to healthy behaviours, compared with residents of wealthier areas.
The researchers noted a significant variation in the presence of food outlets, outdoor recreation facilities and green spaces between the cities surveyed. Residents who reported higher levels of social integration also rated their health more highly, were less likely to be obese and consumed more fruit. However, the same group also tended to spend more time sitting down and were less involved in physical activity that required transportation.
As part of the study, participants had to describe the boundaries of their residential neighbourhood using a map and a web-based tool. Older adults tended to define smaller neighbourhoods than younger adults. Women mostly defined smaller neighbourhoods than men, while higher educational levels were mostly associated with larger self-defined neighbourhoods. Prof. Jean-Michel Oppert, of Pitie-Salpetriere University Hospital, Paris, France, speculates that younger residents, men and those with a higher educational level move around more or live in places with greater access to urban opportunities such as services, transport and social activities. This would increase the space where activities are performed. The space of the self-defined neighbourhood also expanded the longer a person lived in an area, possibly because longer residency implies more social activities and relationships in the community and greater awareness of local facilities. The researchers point out that the findings have implications for health behaviours and outcomes such as obesity.