I just got done reading an article titled Neighborhood Environment and Psychosocial Correlates of Adults’ Physical Activity. I was really interested to read this one because as some of you may know, I get very frustrated by what I perceive to be the oversimplification of health behaviors. To me, it is not just about the individual choice to eat better and exercise more-although I’m not in any way denying the personal responsibility associated with healthy living. It is also about your environment, social support, local policy, etc. Many of you have probably heard me state my case that it is easy to blame a parent for a child not getting enough physical activity, but it is also worth noting whether other factors come into play-do they not live in a safe area where the child can go too far from home? Is it a situation where a single parent is working two jobs to make ends meet, and therefore doesn’t have as much time as they want to play with their kid? Do they live in an area where there is not much open space for a child to run and play? Although I use the example of a child, many of these issues can pertain to adults as well. This article looked at some of the environmental factors impacting the physical activity of adults.
This study built off of previous research of a similar nature. The authors intent was to examine whether objective built factors (such as residential density and the number of intersections per area) and perceived factors (such as aesthetics) correlated to their physical activity and walking behaviors. In an attempt to eliminate, or at least reduce, the impact of demographics and psychosocial factors (such as perceived barriers to physical activity) the authors accounted for such factors in their analysis.
The study followed 2199 individuals who lived in neighborhoods with differing on walkability characteristics and household income. Participants wore accelerometers for objective measurement of physical activity, and self-reported data was also collected. What they found was that a factor called retail floor area ratio (FAR) was the environmental factor most related to both objectively measured physical activity as well as self-reported walking for transportation. Additionally, street connectivity significantly impacted walking for transportation. Perceived aesthetics of the area impacted leisure walking.
What is retail FAR? Their example helped me understand: a three-story building covering the entire lot has a retail FAR of 3, whereas a single-story retail building surrounded by a parking lot has a retail FAR of less than 1. Higher retail FAR led to more walking. So the ability to just walk to the door from the sidewalk increased the likelihood of walking, whereas having to walk across a large parking lot (think Walmart) decreased walking.
Street connectivity looks at intersections and street layout. They found individuals are more likely to commute by walking if blocks are short and the streets have grid-like patterns. This makes sense because who really wants to walk down a long block that weaves all over the place, only to have to turn somewhere and double back because there was no straight shot to where you were trying to go?
Finally, perceived aesthetics increased leisure walking. This makes sense to me also because leisure walking is a voluntary activity, and “perks” like how pretty it is can be taken into consideration, as opposed to the more practical approach likely used by people looking to increase physical activity or simply get to where they need to go.
This was a really extensive study with a lot of factors taken into account that I will not even attempt to cover. There are a few takeaway points I would like to discuss though.One is the impact that environmental factors have over the decision to be physically active. Is this something you all experience? Do you think it is important to create policy that promotes physical activity (and other healthy behaviors) or do you think the responsibility rests only on the individual?
The other point I wanted to bring up is the difficulty in putting this information into practice. Based on the study results, the authors of the study make proposals such as building vertically instead of horizontally, creating parking structures as opposed to lots and placing retail buildings closer to residential areas. While these are very practical suggestions based on the study, how open to these ideas do you think people would be? Because to me it sounds like urbanization. Maybe some residents are currently fighting the retail expansion of their community. To play devil’s advocate (yes, I do that even to myself) there are probably some practical ways to accomplish this without turning every suburban area into a metropolis. Think quaint small towns. Mom-and-Pop shops lining the street, grid-like roads, and a Main Street that runs through the residential area. Cute, practical, aesthetically pleasing. But would it be worth the cost to create these types of environments? What is the cost-to-benefit ratio?
Now I’m just starting to ramble, so I’ll stop there. But my main point is that it is complicated! There is no easy answer, and it will take all of us-individuals, policy makers, business owners-to make lasting, positive changes. Any thoughts or insight into the topic are welcome!
Saelens, B. et al. (2012). Neighborhood environment and psychosocial correlates of adults’ physical activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 44(4), 637-646.