Study time

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.

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7 Responses to Study time

  1. Tim says:

    Obviously I have already had the brief discussion with you regarding this study but now that I have read your post I wanted to weigh in on it as well. Now obviously I am not every person, nor do I think like every person but I do feel that we have direct experience with the principles of this study. When we lived in San Diego, Ocean Beach to be more specific, I did not mind running at all. I could have done it more but I enjoyed running in the area. It was a community environment…mom & pop places as you stated in your blog. Obviously running along the cliffs was breathtaking. Then we moved to Illinois…I ran more there but did not like it as much and found myself driving to places to go and run or as you know running down to the McRory bike trail which provided some better aesthetics. In general I was less likely to be excited to go running around the area that we lived. Now that we live in Norfolk I enjoy running around our neighborhood again. The houses are nice and the landscaping is great. The ODU campus makes it interesting but then you can get down into Ghent where I really enjoy running. It reminds me of Ocean Beach with regards to the mom and pop feel of it. The neighborhoods are great to run through because the housing architecture is amazing. So personally I feel the environment that you live in definitely contributes to physical activity.

    I wish this was an issue that could be oversimplified. If you listened to me talk, you would think that I am a person that thinks individual responsibility is 100% the cause, however, that isn’t true and I know this. It is my knee jerk reaction to what seems like something that goes on constantly and that is peoples constant incessant fodder about loosing weight (never about being healthy, different soapbox though) as they scarf down an oversized salad with bacon, fried chicken breast and ranch and think they made a healthy choice. What is the answer…well if I knew that we would be living in one of those houses overlooking sunset cliffs. But I will say this…we live in an age of smart phones, computers, and commuting from suburbia to city centers. Physical activity will continue to be put on the back burner so as much as people don’t want more oversight I do think that policy will be the only way to fight obesity and all the comorbidities that come with it. In a world of restaurants and fast food, I think that is where the policy begins. How did we get on top of the prevalence of smoking…we taxed the hell out of it. Who smokes now…only the hardcore smokers who aren’t going to quit for nothing and they are a large minority in comparison. At some point we are going to have to create policies that make it harder to kill ourselves through the consumption of food.

  2. Dad says:

    When you live in an area surronded by literally hundreds of miles of forest trails you can walk or run you do not think about folks living in urban areas or cities where taking a stroll or jog could be dangerous to your health. Jogging around Kelly’s neighborhood would make me very nervous. Good food for thought.

    • Dawn Whiting says:

      That was one thing I thought about as I was reading the study. Yes, easy accessibility promotes walking for transportation, and that is great because that is a behavior that has lasting implications-not a fad, or a diet. And they did study moderate to vigorous physical activity…but there are so many other ways to achieve fitness and physical activity such as biking, boating, sports, etc. and I find it hard to believe that these are more prevalent in highly populated areas than in more open areas. So many factors, it really would be impossible to examine them all. Related to your comment about the safety, one thing the study found was that perceived safety did not negatively (or positively) impact leisure walking in areas. I thought it would have a significant impact. Obviously one study is not conclusive, and cannot determine a direct causal relationship, but it still surprised me. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Studies have shown for years that folks who live in mixed-use neighborhoods with high connectivity, traffic-calming features, etc are more physically active. But here’s the question: chicken or egg? Do physically active people move there because it fits their lifestyle? Or did they only begin walking once residing there because the neighborhood is so conducive to it?

    • Dawn Whiting says:

      Awesome question! And something that these researchers actually attempted to address-one of the many factors they included in their questionnaire was motivations for moving to the area (specifically related to perceived ease of physical activity). For this particular study, they actually attempted to control for that as opposed to examining it. But that is only one study, and I agree completely. It is something Tim and I look for when we are house-hunting…which would indicate that we are already relatively active people. Such a complex topic.

      Thanks for commenting! How are you? Hope all is well!

      • It’s cool to see they’re looking at that aspect of it. I was too lazy to actually read the study! That needs more attention probably if we’re to convince local gov’ts to consider mixed-use infrastructure.
        We’re pretty good here. Busy! This is as close as I get to staying connected to my former career. Spouting off on the internet. Take care – gotta go change a diaper…

      • Dawn Whiting says:

        It was a loooong study, and they lost me a few times! It is a very interesting topic, and one that I really think is going to start getting more attention in the years to come.

        Glad to hear you’re doing well! I can only imagine how busy your days are 🙂 Spout off any time here-I love feedback and new intel!

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