How we interact with our neighborhood has implications for our health.
It is no surprise that where we live affects our health, but this is the first major study to use online street views to assess the exercise and dietary habits of neighborhoods.
The study took 4 years to complete and involved data from nearly 6,000 people living in major cities across Europe.
It looked at the nature of local neighborhoods, tallying self-reported perceptions of the environment by residents with objective measures based on Google Street View.
It also involved estimates of individual health behaviors, social integration and community support.
Your neighborhood impacts your health
Many measures related to the local environment appear to be linked to health behavior and the risk of developing obesity, according to the study results.
Levels of physical activity, self-rated health, happiness and neighborhood preference were closely associated with residents' perception and use of their neighborhood.
People living in socioeconomically deprived areas were less likely to see their area as conducive to healthy behaviors, compared with residents of wealthier areas.
The researchers noted a significant variation in the presence of food outlets, outdoor recreation facilities and green spaces between the cities surveyed.
Residents who reported higher levels of social integration also rated their health more highly, were less likely to be obese and consumed more fruit.
However, the same group also tended to spend more time sitting down and were less involved in physical activity that required transportation.
Community, gender, age and education influence perceptions of space
As part of the study, participants had to describe the boundaries of their residential neighborhood using a map and a web-based tool.
Older adults tended to define smaller neighborhoods than younger adults. Women mostly defined smaller neighborhoods than men, while higher educational levels were mostly associated with larger self-defined neighborhoods.
Prof. Jean-Michel Oppert, of Pitie-Salpetriere University Hospital, Paris, France, speculates that younger residents, men and those with a higher educational level move around more or live in places with greater access to urban opportunities such as services, transport and social activities. This would increase the space where activities are performed.
The space of the self-defined neighborhood also expanded the longer a person lived in an area, possibly because longer residency implies more social activities and relationships in the community and greater awareness of local facilities.
The researchers point out that the findings have implications for health behaviors and outcomes such as obesity. They urge architects and urban planners to consider such factors when designing residential areas.
Lead researcher Jeroen Lakerveld, of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, says:
"Urban planners and policy makers have a responsibility to ensure that the neighborhoods they design and the facilities and businesses that the neighborhoods contain will promote healthy behavior and is protective against unhealthy behaviors."
He explains that focusing on "upstream determinants of healthy behaviors," such as promoting healthy food purchases and physical exercise, could mean huge savings on health care costs.
Lakerveld adds: "The best neighborhoods are those which have the facilities to support good health and also can encourage social networking and community support."
In terms of research strategy, Prof. Oppert points out that the use of online street views has broken new ground.
Data collected through online sources matched the information gathered on the street, suggesting a future role for online tools that could save on research costs and shed light on ways of improving neighborhoods.
Some time ago, Medical News Today reported on research suggesting that "easy-to-walk" neighborhoods are better for the health of older adults.