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Neighbourhood design key to tackling inactivity pandemic

People living in densely populated, walkable and interconnected neighbourhoods with good access to public transport and parks do up to 90 minutes more physical activity a week than those in the least activity-friendly areas, a new study published in The Lancet has revealed.

The International Physical Activity and Environment Network adult study looked at close to 7000 adults across 14 cities in 10 countries and found there were four neighbourhood environmental attributes that had the most impact on physical activity: net residential density, intersection density (connected streets), the number of parks and public transit density.

Those areas with the most of these features had residents doing up to 90 minutes more activity than those in areas with the least of the features, which accounts for 60 per cent of the recommended 150 minutes a week of physical activity recommended by the World Health Organization.

According to the study, physical inactivity is a global pandemic responsible for more that five million deaths a year. Having a coordinated response that acknowledges the role of neighbourhood design in encouraging physical activity could help reduce non-communicable diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, the authors said.

“We studied neighbourhoods ranging in socioeconomic status and culture,” lead study author and University of California San Diego School of Medicine Professor James Sallis said.

“Those built with more activity-supportive environmental features had residents who did more physical activity. For example, transit access is a requirement for living a lifestyle that is less car-dependent and more active because it increases walking to and from the transit facility.”

While the impact of neighbourhood design on health has been studied for years, the researchers said theirs was the first to research the connection worldwide with objective measures. Cities included Adelaide, Australia; Wellington, New Zealand; Hong Kong, China; Seattle, US; Bogota, Colombia; and Ghent, Belgium.

Professor Sallis said the findings suggested that principles to encourage physical activity were the same internationally, and a collaborative multidisciplinary approach was needed when designing neighbourhoods.

“The implication is if we want to do something major about the epidemic of physical inactivity, then we need to look outside of the health field to achieve that,” he said.

“A variety of stakeholders and decision-makers, such as urban planners, elected officials and transportation and park officials, need to come together in an effort to think about how to best use resources to increase activity that could also have environmental and economic benefits.”

Professor Sallis said the next step in the research would be to work with other countries to lead studies that would help make changes in how residential areas were built, particularly for low socioeconomic areas.

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