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New research shows connection between walkable communities and obesity levels

The more you walk, the healthier you are, says the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

In a recently released study, the government research branch found that residents in southwestern Ontario living in communities with high walkability scores, meaning how easy it is for pedestrians to walk around, are less likely to become overweight and obese.

A higher than average bodyweight can lead to many different health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular issues, arthritis and even mental health issues, says Dr. Marisa Creatore, epidemiologist and one of the study’s authors.

Researchers watched weight and more for 11 years, starting in 2001, factoring in Statistics Canada census results and covered 8,777 neighbourhoods and three million adults between the ages of 30 and 64.

Creatore says the results showed that there is a direct link between a walkability score, and the rate of obesity and diabetes. The farther someone lives from amenities like grocery stores, key destinations like work or school and even poor layout of the streets all have a negative impact on health.

She says she hopes the results of the study will help dictate future growth in smaller communities, like Elmira.

“Presumably there is going to be development and there is building going on. Communities are changing. As those communities change and as the municipality makes decisions on how they want to grow, they need to make those decisions very thoughtfully around how they are designing their neighbourhoods,” she said. “There are certain layouts that just do not encourage people to walk. The actual output of our models is really more relevant for larger urban centres, but the 10,000 foot message is that design matters even at a small level. It makes a difference.”

For those that are already settled in areas where the walk score may be low, it is more difficult for them to have the motivation to just go for a walk without a destination in mind.

“If you are living in a community where to go get a carton of milk, or even bring your kids to school, if walking there is something that you can easily do and is convenient, you are just more likely to do it,” said Creatore. “Everybody’s lives are different, but when your community makes it easier to walk, and walk as a mode of transportation, it is a no-brainer. We all know that the easier we make those healthy choices, the easier it will be to stick with them.”

This is the first study to look at the obesity and diabetes rates over a long term. Other studies, including some that Creatore has been part of, tend to look at a single neighbourhood at one point in time, rather than tracking changes over a decade. The results were satisfying for the researchers.

“I think what we were excited to see how true, when you were actually looking at a single community over time, there really was an effect over time of living in a walkable community and body weight and diabetes,” she said. “That was very heartening for us to see that it has held true in that way. It just continues to support the hypothesis, but now it is more than a hypothesis.”

To find your home walkability score, visit HERE. The higher the score, the better the walkability.

To learn more about the walkability study, visit www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

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