It has long been known that getting regular exercise is one of the keys to helping prevent Type 2 diabetes — after all, exercise helps sensitize the body to naturally produced insulin, potentially negating the effects of insulin resistance, a hallmark of Type 2 diabetes. But as clear as the benefits of exercise are, most people both with and without diabetes fall far short of recommended levels of physical activity. So the race is on to find ways to get people to move more, from labeling office stairways with calorie counts to studying how different neighborhoods are more or less conducive to physical activity.
In a study published last week in the journal PLOS One, researchers examined the relationship between a neighborhood’s walkability — a composite score based on several different measurements — and rates of obesity and diabetes within the city of Toronto. Along with an established walkability index of neighborhoods, they used survey data and health databases to establish patterns of behavior as well as health outcomes. The researchers found, not surprisingly, that people were more likely to walk, bicycle, and use public transportation in neighborhoods with both a higher residential density and a high concentration of walkable destinations, such as restaurants, shops, and cultural venues. People living in neighborhoods with a high residential density but few walkable destinations, or in low-density neighborhoods with some walkable destinations, were only slightly more likely to walk, bike, or take transit than those living in low-density neighborhoods with few destinations.
Overall, people living in the least walkable neighborhoods (the bottom fifth) were 33% more likely to have diabetes and 20% more likely to be overweight or obese than those living in the most walkable neighborhoods (the top fifth), according to an article on the study in Endocrine Today. People living in the least walkable areas owned 80% more motor vehicles, on average, than those living in the most walkable areas, and were 75% more likely to take trips by car. People living in the most walkable neighborhoods were 72% more likely to use public transportation than those in the least walkable areas, and more than three times as likely to walk or use a bicycle for transportation.
Of course, a correlation between walking and better health doesn’t necessarily show than one directly causes the other; there may be other factors, such as a better diet or generally better levels of health, that are associated with — but aren’t the result of — living in a more walkable neighborhood and walking more often. And it remains to be seen whether the patterns seen in this study, based on Toronto, apply more generally to cities throughout North America and the world. Nevertheless, it makes intuitive sense that living in a walkable neighborhood would make a person more likely to get up and move, just as having easy access to fruits and vegetables makes a person more likely to eat them.
Have you lived in different neighborhoods with different levels of “walkability”? If so, did you get more physical activity while living in a more walkable neighborhood, or did you make up for the difference in other ways in your less walkable neighborhood? Do you prefer getting exercise through daily tasks and errands, or setting aside time specifically for recreational physical activity? Is there a downside to living in a dense, more walkable neighborhood? Leave a comment below!