Rerun image Do you live in a compact city, a sprawling suburban area, or out in the wide-open spaces? Your answer, according to one study, could influence your health in important ways. The full impact of where you live becomes even greater as you grow older.

How Locations Differ

Traditional neighborhoods in cities and towns are designed for a mix of homes and businesses. The grid-like street layouts feature short blocks and numerous connecting streets. Sidewalks are plentiful. When running errands in nearby areas of town, usually it is fairly safe and convenient to travel on foot or on a bike.

In contrast, suburban neighborhoods are not laid out for walking ease. Residential areas are kept well away from businesses. The blocks are usually long and curvy, cul-de-sacs and dead-end roads abound, and connecting streets and sidewalks are few and far between. You might need to take a high-volume roadway to get to a shopping center. Try walking in suburban neighborhoods, and you may find the experience unpleasant or even dangerous.

Impact on Obesity

The conversion of rural lands to sprawling subdivisions has increased rapidly in recent years. Scientists are starting to understand the health implications of these changes.

A study published in the June 2004 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined the connection between type of neighborhood and obesity. After collecting data on 11,000 residents from around Atlanta, Georgia, researchers found that people living in the suburbs walk less and weigh more than those living in more compact areas. Each extra hour spent in a car was associated with a 6% increased risk of obesity in the study.

Impact on Health

In addition to the connection to obesity, suburban sprawl has now been linked to a broad array of ailments. One study—the first of its kind to conclusively document these health connections—was published in the October 2004 issue of Public Health. Researchers analyzed telephone survey data on symptoms that were described by nearly 9,000 Americans in 38 metropolitan areas.

People living in the most sprawling communities reported the greatest number of health problems. The association was especially strong for arthritis, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and emphysema, stomach problems, headaches, and chronic urinary ailments. Researchers also found evidence of a link between suburban location and cardiovascular disorders, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. These effects were most pronounced among older people. In all age groups, health-related quality of life suffered in the suburbs, though surprisingly, mental health did not.

In the final analysis, those living in the most spread-out places, such as San Bernardino, California, had more health problems than those living in more compact areas, such as Boston, Massachusetts.

Why Quality of Life Suffers

The lead researcher of the survey, Roland Sturm, lists the reasons why suburbanites generally have poorer health. Sprawl discourages physical activity, increasing the chance of becoming overweight—a known risk factor for many health problems. He also says sprawling communities tend to have higher levels of toxic air pollution.

“This study provides some initial support to the hotly debated claim that suburban sprawl is bad for health,” Sturm concludes. “If future research confirms our initial results, policies that address the built environment can play a critical role in the prevention of a wide variety of chronic diseases.”

What to Do Now

There is already enough evidence to start taking action. The study on suburbs and obesity contains a key piece of data that most of us can use without delay—each additional half-mile walked per day results in a 5% decreased risk of obesity.

So no matter where you live, you can expect your waistline and health to improve once you make it a priority to accumulate at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. First get your healthcare provider’s okay if you are unaccustomed to exercise.

Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Park your car a block or two from your destination and walk.
  • Wherever you are, take breaks to walk the stairs and halls throughout the day.
  • Join a gym near your work or home and start working out.
  • Invest in some home exercise equipment such as a treadmill or stationary bicycle.
  • Go walking with a spouse, family member, or friend several times a week.
  • Record the steps you are taking with a pedometer (a small device worn on your pants or belt). Try to take 10,000 steps/day.
  • Do yard work or chores in 10-minute increments to keep track of your work and accumulate 30 minutes of activity daily.

Your health and longevity are in your hands (and feet). Now is the time to find more ways to move.