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People living in car-dependent neighborhoods 70% more likely to be obese than those living in “Walker’s Paradise”

July 14, 2015 Toronto

People who live in areas where they are more likely to walk to work, to school or to run errands are, on average, less likely to be overweight or obese than those living in car-dependent neighbourhoods.

Researchers at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) have found that, all else being equal, those living in “Walker’s Paradise” neighbourhoods weigh on average seven pounds less than those in very car-dependent neighbourhoods.

Walk Score® (walkscore.com) is an open-access neighbourhood walkability index that measures how conducive a neighbourhood is to walking, i.e., being within walking distance to grocery stores, banks, coffee shops, libraries and other locations. The Walk Score® scale ranges from 0 to 100 and is sorted into five categories ranging from “very car-dependent” (almost all errands require a car) to “Walker’s Paradise” (daily errands do not require a car).

“Not only did we find differences between the two extremes of the Walk Score® categories, we also found a decreasing obesity gradient when moving from very car-dependent to car-dependent to somewhat walkable to very walkable to Walker’s Paradise areas, suggesting that even small improvements to walkability in any area could potentially decrease the risk of obesity,” said Dr. Maria Chiu, lead author of the study and a scientist at ICES.

The researchers add that active transport, or strictly walking to complete daily tasks, does not need to be time-consuming. The majority of those who lived in Walker’s Paradise neighbourhoods walked at least one hour more per week or about 10 minutes more per day than those who lived in very car-dependent neighbourhoods.

The study is by far the largest, and the first of its kind in Canada, to examine Walk Score® and its relationship with walking and obesity.

The study looked at 106,337 adults living in urban and suburban communities in Ontario who participated in Statistics Canada’s National Population Health Survey and Canadian Community Health Survey from 1996 to 2008.

“Only 15 per cent of Canadian adults meet the minimum daily recommended level of physical activity. But this statistic can be dramatically improved if we each incorporate as little as 10 minutes of physical activity per day while performing everyday activities, such as walking to the bank or walking to pick up groceries or our morning coffee instead of driving. In fact, active transport may be the most feasible and sustainable approach to ensuring that recommended levels of daily physical activity are met,” added Chiu.

The researchers looked specifically at active transport (i.e., walking to work, to school or to run errands) and found a strong relationship with obesity that was independent of physical leisure activity and sedentary behaviour. People living in high walkability areas were, on average, less wealthy and less educated, participated less in walking for exercise or sport, and spent more hours sitting per day, yet they were less obese than those in low walkability neighbourhoods. The researchers suggest that living in a more walkable neighbourhood encourages residents to incorporate more walking into daily life and reduce their risk of obesity.

“Urban planners and policymakers can also do their part by designing neighbourhoods that are more pedestrian-friendly, so that the healthier choice of walking instead of driving is more convenient and enjoyable,” said Chiu.

“Walk Score® and the prevalence of utilitarian walking and obesity among Ontario adults: a cross-sectional study” was published today in Health Reports.

Author block: Maria Chiu, Baiju R. Shah, Laura C. Maclagan, Mohammad-Reza Rezai, Peter C. Austin and Jack V. Tu.

ICES is an independent, non-profit organization that uses population-based health information to produce knowledge on a broad range of health care issues. Our unbiased evidence provides measures of health system performance, a clearer understanding of the shifting health care needs of Ontarians, and a stimulus for discussion of practical solutions to optimize scarce resources. ICES knowledge is highly regarded in Canada and abroad, and is widely used by government, hospitals, planners, and practitioners to make decisions about care delivery and to develop policy.

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