This is part 1 of 2 in a series about environmental influences on health. Read Part 2 on eating.
When people talk about improving their health, it’s often described in terms of individual goals and accomplishments. I’m going to start walking more. Or my family started cooking more healthy foods.
But one of the largest factors in your health is also one you can’t easily control. Your environment.
The world around us actually works against us when it comes to eating healthy and being active. Small cues in our daily life can greatly influence how we eat and how much activity we get. And while we may not be able to change the environment, recognizing the problem and working to fix it can benefit everyone.
The task starts in your own neighborhood.
The biggest and most obvious complication that the environment can offer is limited “walkability,” meaning how easy it is to travel without a car in a neighborhood. When people live outside of major city centers, they find it harder (if not impossible) to travel to a grocery store, restaurant, or even a park without driving a car. Not only does this keep them from being active, but it helps contribute to pollution.
In addition, many suburban communities being built nowadays lack sidewalks. The reasons for this vary, but a recent study found that it may just be a simple loss of interest due to the “car culture” of our society, and builders and planners who see no need for them. Add to this the fact that everyone already relies on cars in the suburbs, and you see how environment and society loop around each other to discourage people from walking.
The value of walkability goes far beyond just creating opportunities to be active outside. Living in a more walkable neighborhood can improve your overall quality of life by helping you trust your neighbors, work with the community on projects, attend meetings, or simply visit with friends. People in walkable neighborhoods report being happier, and they also benefit from building professional connections, increasing neighborhood safety, and reducing their own isolation.
Related to the idea of walkability, neighborhoods can also be evaluated in terms of green space, meaning the amount of plants, grass, and trees available, either around the neighborhood or in parks. Studies have found that more green space in a neighborhood means more physical activity. But this activity may not just be traditional physical activity such as walking to the park, running on trails, or playing sports.
Green spaces actually seem to encourage other types of outdoor activity such as gardening, fixing the house, and mowing the lawn. While these activities may not seem to fall in the realm of physical exercise, they can help build muscle, burn calories, and get the heart rate up! Not to mention, they help you get valuable sunlight, which is vital for producing vitamin D in the body.
However, even if your neighborhood has plenty of green space and walkability, pollution may still prevent you from using the environment to its fullest. This study found that many neighborhoods that scored high in walkability were not actually healthy to walk in because of pollution. The areas with the highest pollution were both downtown and the suburbs, primarily due to car exhaust. The best neighborhoods sat someplace in between, and had a lot of mixed use land, meaning that businesses, restaurants, and shops were interspersed with residential areas. But the ideal neighborhoods only made up 2% of all neighborhoods surveyed.
While it would be difficult to uproot and move to one of these ideal neighborhoods, you can still learn to utilize your neighborhood and stay active. Getting children involved in gardening is one great way to expose them to the outdoors and get in physical activity. (Plus, kids love getting dirty!) Also, planting trees and grass can improve the green space around your home. If you actually are looking to move, then make sure you not only look at the house, but get a feel for the area by walking around, seeing if sidewalks are maintained and not broken, and how easy it would be to walk to the store for small errands.
Check out part 2, which looks at how the environment can influence healthy eating!
Learn more about the benefits of green space and allowing kids to play outside.