July 14, 2015 11:58 am

Why your car-dependent neighbourhood is increasing your risk of obesity

New Canadian research is warning that people living in car-reliant neighbourhoods are more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers who use their feet to get to work, school and their errands.

(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

If you’re driving into the office, to the grocery store after work and then over to the bank, your waistline may be reflecting your cushy mode of transportation. New Canadian research is warning that people living in car-reliant neighbourhoods are more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers who use their feet to get to work, school and their errands.

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Canadian scientists out of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences say that people walking from point A to point B weigh, on average, seven pounds less than their peers behind the wheel.

“At a population level, this is significant. This is a way in which we’ve seen just a small increase in active transport leading to better health outcomes. It’s an additional 10 minutes more per day that you walk to complete your errands and it can add up and lead to significant decreases in risk of obesity,” Dr. Maria Chiu told Global News.

Chiu is the lead author in the study. She’s also an ICES scientist and epidemiologist.

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She suggests her findings could help urban planners and policymakers in building communities around accessibility on foot.

“We need to set people up for success and if we create neighbourhoods that are more walkable and more effective, it’s a sustainable strategy for preventing obesity at a population level,” she said.

Chiu’s team used Walk Score, an open-access neighbourhood walkability index that measures a region’s access to amenities, such as grocery stores, banks, coffee shops, libraries and other facilities.

Walk Score ranges from zero to 100 – a perfect score would mean that amenities are readily available to the people living in the community within walking distance.

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Then Chiu pulled up Statistics Canada population health survey data of 106,000 respondents from 1996 to 2008. Postal codes were matched with Walk Score data to see how Canadians in pockets of Ontario fared in health.

“We could tell if they lived in car dependent neighbourhoods and walkable neighbourhoods and linked that to whether they even walked and whether this was linked to their risk of obesity,” she said.

The study also shed light on who tends to walk most in Canada: they were, on average, less wealthy, less educated, walked less for exercise and even spent more time sitting daily. Yet they were less obese than those in low walkability neighbourhoods – this contradicts some stereotypes that suggest that people grappling with obesity tend to have lower incomes and less education.

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Turns out, there were “two extremes” in which car-dependent Canadians weighed more while pedestrians were lighter. There was also an “obesity gradient” as communities became less foot traffic-friendly.

Chiu cautions that her findings aren’t blaming cars in any way. She says the message is that small adjustments can go a long way.

Those in foot-friendly communities walked at least one hour more per week – about 10 minutes more per day – than their peers who drove around. Ten minutes of walking a day is a feasible goal, she says.  Park your car further away from work or walk to the library instead of driving, she suggests.

Right now, only 15 per cent of Canadians meet the minimum daily recommended levels of exercise. That’s what triggered Chiu to embark on this research.

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Chiu says the study is the largest piece of research zeroing in on Walk Score and its relationship with obesity. It’s also the first study of its kind of Canada.

The full findings were published Tuesday in the journal Health Reports.

Last year, Canadian doctor Mike Evans sent a similar message to Canadians: in a video campaign, he asked Canadians to “Make our day harder.”

“How about you and I start a movement – an anti-pushing-the-button-so-the-door-opens-automatically-for-us movement,” the St. Michael’s Hospital physician, University of Toronto scientist and viral video star, said.

READ MORE: Doctor calls on Canadians to ditch the shortcuts, add time on their feet

He says he knows it sounds counter-intuitive but in a world of convenience and oversimplifying – electric toothbrushes, vacuums on autopilot, online shopping and remote controls for everything – adjustments need to be made in our daily lives to carve out a space for activity.

And he’s not referring to time in the gym or taking up running – it’s small tweaks that we need to be conscious of.

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“For a variety of reasons that include technology, culture and attitudes, we have a severe generational case of sitting disease,” Evans says.

“We watch phones, tablets, televisions. We stare at computers when we work and pride ourselves on not moving for four hours straight.”


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