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Planning cities to beat obesity

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The obesity epidemic isn't just about food - lack of exercise is also a key factor. Recent findings in a New Zealand-based study have uncovered that planning a 'walkable' neighbourhood helps increase activity rates - and can build healthier communities.

The study, undertaken by researchers from Massey University, AUT University and the University of Otago, studied more than 2000 adults between April 2009 and September 2010 in 48 neighbourhoods across Christchurch, Wellington, and the former North Shore and Waitakere cities. Participants in the URBAN study wore an accelerometer which measured their physical activity over seven consecutive days, and filled out a questionnaire outlining their activities during this period.

The researchers measured different built environment features including dwelling density, access to amenities (such as schools, shops, parks and libraries), street connectivity (the number of intersections per area), the land use mix (housing only or a mix of houses, shops, industry and green space) and streetscape (a measure of street aesthetic and safety attributes) to see which neighbourhoods were more or less 'walkable'.

The study found that people were more inclined to use active transport methods, like cycling or walking to work or shops, and engage in more outdoor leisure-time activity when their neighbourhood is built to support such activity.

"Our research strongly suggests that how we design and plan our cities does influence our physical activity levels," says the study's author Dr Karen Witten. "This is an important finding because physical inactivity is a risk factor for many preventable diseases and chronic conditions."

"When ranked by measures of walkability we found about a 30 per cent difference in physical activity when comparing people in the lowest and highest five per cent of New Zealand neighbourhoods," says Dr Witten.

The study adjusted for variables in demographic and socioeconomic factors, and also adjusted for the respondents' preference to live in a walkable neighbourhood. "This adjustment for variables gives us confidence that the nature of the neighbourhood, not just the type of people living in those neighbourhoods, is leading to meaningful differences in physical activity," says co-researcher and epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely of the University of Otago.

"Our study adds strength to the growing international evidence that there is a substantial opportunity to increase physical activity - for transport and leisure - through structural changes in our built neighbourhood environments."

This is timely research as Christchurch looks to rebuild, and other urban centres in New Zealand consider their environments for medium and long-term planning.

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