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That's the finding from two Canadian studies that showed those living in an area that encourages walking are also three times more likely to walk or bike and half as likely to drive to get from one place to another compared to residents in areas where cars are required.
The researchers concluded that environment plays a role in people's level of physical activity and should be considered when developing strategies to improve health.
"How we build our cities matters in terms of our overall health," lead researcher, Dr. Gillian Booth, an endocrinologist and research scientist at St. Michael's Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto, said in a news release from the American Diabetes Association.
"This is one piece of a puzzle that we can potentially do something about. As a society, we have engineered physical activity out of our lives. Every opportunity to walk, to get outside, to go to the corner store or walk our children to school can have a big impact on our risk for diabetes and becoming overweight," Booth added.
The researchers compared adults living in the most walkable areas of southern Ontario with those living in areas considered to be the least conducive to walking. The metropolitan areas considered walkable had more local stores and services within walking distance and more streets that connected.
The study revealed those living in the most walkable areas had on average a 13 percent lower rate of diabetes development over a 10-year period.
In a separate study, the researchers also adjusted for the fact that healthier people may choose to live in areas that allow for more walking. This study also showed that neighborhoods that encouraged the most walking also had the lowest rates of obesity and diabetes.
In the most walkable neighborhoods, the researchers found diabetes incidence dropped 7 percent during a decade. Meanwhile, there was a 6 percent increase in diabetes in areas considered least walkable.
The number of people who were obese or overweight was also lowest in the most walkable areas, with an incidence rate that fell 9 percent in 10 years. In the least walkable neighborhoods, however, the rate rose 13 percent in the same time frame, according to the study.
"When you live in a neighborhood designed to encourage people to be more active, you are, in fact, more likely to be more active," Marisa Creatore, an epidemiologist with the Center for Research on Inner City Health at St. Michael's Hospital, Toronto, said in the news release.
The researchers pointed out the protective effects of living in a walkable area applied only to people younger than 65. Older people in those areas did not experience the health benefits.
Booth concluded that reducing rates of obesity "will require policy changes as well as individual strategies. We have to take a more population-based approach to the problem, given the environment we live in."
The studies were scheduled for presentation Tuesday at the American Diabetes Association meeting in San Francisco. The data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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