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Activity-Friendly Cities Could Be a Matter of Life and Death

People who live in activity-friendly cities get much more exercise every week.

T photography/Shutterstock
People who reside in activity-friendly urban environments exercise more, stay healthier, and live longer.
Source: T photography/Shutterstock

Do you live in a city or neighborhood with activity-friendly characteristics? I was lucky enough to be born and raised close to Central Park in Manhattan, which instilled a lifelong passion for staying physically active in my leisure time—along with the habit of walking, biking, or taking public transportation everywhere.

Urban planners are growing increasingly aware that American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—who spearheaded the design of Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn—was a visionary. City planners and public health advocates around the globe are beginning to focus on the importance of creating cities and neighborhoods that facilitate active lifestyles.

Surprisingly, residential density—combined with lots of public transportation stops, intersections, and parks within walking distance—creates a winning formula for automatically encouraging citizens to stay more active. In fact, a new international study reports that people who live in activity-friendly neighborhoods inadvertently get 90 minutes more life-changing exercise per week.

The increased amount of physical activity observed in activity-friendly cities could be a matter of life and death for millions of people in the United States and around the world.

Designing More Activity-Friendly Cities Could Save Millions of Lives

The authors estimate that physical inactivity is responsible for over 5 million deaths per year. They believe that creating more activity-friendly cities is an important part of the public health response to the global disease burden of heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer that are linked to physical inactivity.

The April 2016 study, "Physical Activity in Relation to Urban Environments in 14 Cities Worldwide: A Cross-Sectional Study," was published online in The Lancet. The cities observed in this study were located in: Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, China, Mexico, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States.

For this study, the researchers set out to objectively measure attributes of the urban environment related to physical activity. The study included an international sample of 6822 adults aged 18-66 from 14 cities in 10 countries from the International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN) adult study. IPEN was a coordinated, international, cross-sectional study based on participants who were sampled from neighborhoods with varied levels of walkability and socioeconomic status.

The research team mapped out the neighborhood features from areas around the participants' homes, such as residential density, number of street intersections, public transport stops, number of parks, mixed land use, and nearest public transport points. Physical activity was measured by using accelerometers (which continuously record movement ) worn around participants' waists for a minimum of four days.

On average, participants across all 14 cities did 37 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in the form of brisk walking and other types of activity. The difference in physical activity between participants living in the most and least activity-friendly neighborhoods was 90 minutes per week, of the recommended 150 minutes per week of physical activity.

Four Key Neighborhood Features of Activity-Friendly Urban Environments

The four neighborhood features which were most strongly associated with increases in physical activity were:

  1. Residential density
  2. Number of intersections
  3. Number of public transport stops
  4. Number of parks within walking distance

These activity-friendly characteristics applied across all cities, suggesting that they're important design principles that can be applied universally. In a statement, professor James Sallis, lead author of the study from the University of California, San Diego, explained,

"Neighborhoods with high residential density tend to have connected streets, shops and services meaning people will be more likely to walk to their local shops. Interestingly, distance to nearest transport stop was not associated with higher levels of physical activity, whereas the number of nearby transport stops was.

This might mean that with more options, people are more likely to walk further to get to a transport stop that best meets their needs. The number of local parks was also important since parks not only provide places for sport, but also a pleasant environment to walk in.

Physical inactivity has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Creating healthier cities could have an important impact on improving levels of physical activity. As part of their response to rising levels of non-communicable diseases, public health agencies should work with the urban planning, transport, and parks and recreation sectors towards making cities more activity-friendly than they are today."

Writing in a linked statement to this study, Dr. Shifalika Goenka, from the Public Health Foundation of New Delhi, India, agreed with the evidence supporting the benefits of activity-friendly urban environments. However, she believes there are other specific needs in developing countries that developed nations may take for granted. Goenka said,

"Other vital attributes of the built environment that support physical activity and are taken for granted in all the countries of Sallis and colleagues' study, might not be noted in many other developing countries and need urgent attention—safety, pedestrian priority, availability of adequately wide, useable, un-encroached pedestrian pathways, convenience and safety in cycling, and adequate capacity in public transport."

Conclusion: Urban Planners Need to Make Activity-Friendliness a Top Priority

With increased global urbanization, this study should serve as a clarion call for city planners and policymakers to make activity-friendly cities, public parks, and green spaces a top priority for the psychological and physical well-being of urban dwellers.

In the long run, the fiscal gains of increasing physical activity by building parks, pedestrian pathways, public transportation, etc. will reduce the health burden and skyrocketing healthcare costs caused by the global physical inactivity pandemic.

Goenka concluded, "We need interventions to counter the rapidly growling inactivity that urbanization leads to, by providing environments that change the way we live our daily lives. It is high time that built environments provide the quadruple boost towards health, environment, equity (or public good), and habitat."

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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