BEHAVIOR
April 3, 2008

Fitness: Where You Live Can Make a Difference

Where you live has a lot to do with how much you exercise, according to a study of Chicago neighborhoods.

The study found that the overall character of the neighborhood, not individual income, was the key to how physically active residents were. Specific neighborhood characteristics that were associated with exercise levels included the perceived amount of trust among neighbors, the perceived amount of violence in the community, and the degree of belief that neighbors would help each other.

"We can't encourage people to exercise more without looking at the neighborhood environment in which they live," study co-author Christopher Browning, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, said in a prepared statement. "Some people may have the personal resources and desire to exercise but don't live in a neighborhood in which they feel comfortable to go outside for activities."

Unsurprisingly, given these neighborhood characteristics, people in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty, lower levels of education, and more families headed by women were less likely than others to exercise.

The finding that neighborhood characteristics are more important than a person's income in determining exercise levels was surprising and noteworthy, Browning said.

"The result is surprising enough that it needs to be confirmed by other studies. But if the finding is substantiated, it would show just how important neighborhoods are, and would have important implications for any new initiatives aimed at enhancing health and well-being," he said.

The fact that the neighborhood/exercise connection is stronger in women than in men is another important finding.

"This could help understand why African-American women have much higher obesity rates than other groups," Browning said.

The study, which was published in the April issue of Urban Studies, looked at levels of exercise among 8,782 residents of 373 neighborhoods in Chicago. The study combined statistics from three data sources from the 1990s: the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center Metro Survey, the 1990 U.S. Census, and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods Survey.

"The result is surprising enough that it needs to be confirmed by other studies," he said. "But if the finding is substantiated, it would show just how important neighborhoods are, and would have important implications for any new initiatives aimed at enhancing health and well-being."

Contrary to other research, this study found that once neighborhood factors were taken into account, African Americans in general exercised as much as white residents did. Browning said this finding suggests African Americans will exercise more if they live in neighborhoods where they feel comfortable doing so.

Other studies have found that exercise levels can be increased by improving the physical components of a neighborhood, e.g., creating high-quality parks, sidewalks and recreation centers. But Browning said this study shows that the social environment in a neighborhood needs to be considered along with the physical environment.

"We don't know the relative role of the physical and social environments of a neighborhood," Browning said. "However, it seems likely that they are constantly reinforcing and reacting to one another."
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