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International study links walkable neighbourhoods to higher physical activity levels

A new study provides further evidence of the link between urban environments and physical activity. The study included 14 cities in 10 countries on five continents. Despite the diversity of the cities included, the results suggest common neighbourhood factors that support physical activity all over the world.  

An international team of researchers led by James Sallis, PhD, of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, used data from the International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN) study. The researchers analyzed the physical activity of 6,822 adults in 14 cities, as well as elements of the built environments of their neighbourhoods. Each person included in the study wore an accelerometer for at least four days to measure physical activity, and their built environments were surveyed using GIS software.

The researchers identified four neighbourhood factors that were linked with higher levels of physical activity: residential density, intersection density, public transport density and the number of nearby parks. This indicates that people most likely to have higher physical activity levels live in densely populated areas with interconnected streets suitable for walking or driving, that have access to multiple public transportation options and parks within half a kilometer.

Each of those four factors supports things like walking and biking, and make it less necessary to use a car. High residential density supports neighbourhood shops and services accessible by walking, as well as public transportation. Public transportation options make it possible to use a car less often, and provide some activity walking to and from stops and stations. Intersection density makes a neighbourhood more walkable and offers better access to neighbourhood shops and services on foot. Nearby parks provide a place to play sports or go for a walk.

When the researchers looked at the activity levels in the most walkable neighbourhoods (top five per cent) compared to the least walkable (bottom five per cent), they found a difference of 89 minutes per week of physical activity. They note that this amounts to almost 60 per cent of the 150 minutes per week recommended by physical activity guidelines.

The study authors suggest that well-designed urban environments could help improve physical activity levels around the world, which could help address high obesity levels and the correspondingly high rates of obesity-related health conditions.

The study was published online in The Lancet on April 1, 2016.



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  • Women's College Hospital