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Want people to be more physically active? Build better neighbourhoods, research says

A new Canadian study in urban planning finds that the amount of exercise city residents get is tied to how amenable their streets and sidewalks are to moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The research produced by Canada Public Health found that while some parts of the built environment such as the density of businesses in a neighbourhood are helpful in encouraging walking —a low-to-moderate activity, vigorous intensity activity was more linked more to features such as the length of sidewalks and paths.

Sociologists and urban planners know that the parts of our built environment —the sidewalks, parks, buildings and streets which we use in everyday situations— play a huge role in whether or not people get enough exercise. The walkability of a neighbourhood, for example, stems from features such as residential density, the land use mix between shops and homes and the quality of pedestrian access via paths and sidewalks.

And different population groups are served better by different features, with studies showing that children and youth are more active when nearby roads have lower speed limits, open green spaces and a walkable distance to schools, whereas seniors and the elderly benefit from having shops and destinations near to their homes as well as comfort features along walkways such as benches, ramps and handrails.

As well, urban design needs to be in tune with the natural flow of the seasons, which in Canada means making neighbourhoods more amenable to outdoor activity during winter months, through maximizing exposure to sunshine in public spaces and making use of wind screens such as evergreen trees to block prevailing gusts, for example.

All of this is to say that careful city planning can have a lot to do with how physically active and healthy a population is. For the new study, Gavin R. McCormack of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary polled 4034 Calgarians on how active they were, what sorts of physical activities they preferred and, importantly, what elements of a neighbourhood make it an attractive place to live.

While many studies have found links between urban design and physical activity, McCormack’s study aimed to get around a significant drawback to much of this research, namely, the self-selection problem: “The nonrandom process of individuals choosing to reside in neighbourhoods that align with their physical activity preferences has plagued built environment-physical activity researchers to date,” writes McCormack.

To that end, the study protocol quizzed participants on their attraction to neighbourhood elements including local services, a sense of community in the neighbourhood, ease of driving and access to recreational activities and incorporated the findings into the statistical analysis.

What the research found was that both the fact of participation in physical activity and the duration of that activity varied depending on built environment features such as business and population density, sidewalk length and the amount of green space.

“We observed a greater number of built environment characteristics to be significantly associated with transportation walking compared with recreational walking,” says McCormack. “Importantly, our findings suggest that increasing the density of businesses within neighbourhoods could result in increases in both transportation walking initiation, and the amount of overall time spent walking for transportation.”

One of the surprising conclusions was that vigorous intensity activity was negatively correlated with the amount of green space in a neighbourhood, contrary to the popular assumption about parks and exercising. McCormack suggests that part of the issue may be that many adults do not view parks as destinations but more as areas to be crossed while covering a cycling or running route.

“To increase total neighbourhood-based physical activity, our findings suggest that urban planners should consider, in particular, increasing the local density of business destinations and quantity or length of available sidewalks,” writes McCormack.

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About The Author /

Jayson is a writer, researcher and educator with a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Ottawa. His interests range from bioethics and innovations in the health sciences to governance, social justice and the history of ideas.

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