physically active

Could where we live impact how physically active we are?

Study indicates neighborhood characteristics impact health-related behavior
August 10, 2016

Engaging in regular physical activity is one of several keys to aging healthfully and with maintained independence. Now, new research indicates that the built, natural and social environments may play a major role in helping to enable older adults to be more active.

In a new study from the Texas A&M School of Public Health, Samuel D. Towne Jr., PhD, assistant professor, surveyed people age 50 and older in Texas to determine the most important factors that were associated with engaging in regular physical activity, namely walking.

In order to have an objective measure to quantify how ideal a community was for walking, Towne used the Walk Score™, which is a single number that measures distances from amenities like stores and hospitals. How well a certain area does on it is called an area’s ‘walkability.’

Towne is part of a team of researchers that surveyed individuals residing in four towns in central Texas about their neighborhoods and the amount of time they spent walking.

“Study results indicate that the built, natural and social environments may play a huge role in people’s health,” Towne said. “Making communities safer and more walkable may allow for middle-aged and older adults to be better prepared to stay active in their neighborhoods.”

The large impact of factors like ‘neighborhood cohesion,’ or shared norms and values, and walkability show that they may be important to increasing the quality and length of lives.

More research will be needed to study the link between walking and environments, but Towne’s study serves as a preliminary look into some of the factors that have the largest impact on getting people to walk.

“Understanding the relationship between the environment in which people live and one’s health can help inform not only planned communities, but improvements to existing areas so they can be more walkable and accessible to potentially vulnerable populations,” Towne said.

In the survey, Towne found that only 26 percent of people surveyed met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended amount of physical activity of 150 minutes per week through walking.

“Most adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (or a combination) per week,” Towne said.

The recommendations for physical activity are particularly important because they play a large part in delaying and preventing complications from health problems.

“Physical activity is important for maintaining overall health and lowering the risk of falls,” Towne said. “This is particularly important for older adults, given the fact that the rate of chronic disease and falls increases with age.”

Because difficulty walking is a major risk factor in limiting physical activity, Towne recommends that programs with proven track records of success in increasing people’s capacities for walking be implemented. “Doing so would likely lead to better health outcomes for participants, as well as encourage more physical activity among community-dwelling residents,” he said.

Towne also encourages policy and urban planning strategies that lead to more activity-friendly communities, especially given the role they may play in active aging. “Activity-friendly environments may facilitate better health-related outcomes, especially for people who move from areas that were not activity-friendly.” he said. “Identifying ways to better prepare for the growing older adult population is critical.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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