According to new research, living near a physical activity facility — such as a gym, swimming pool, or football field — might make it a lot easier to keep that New Year’s resolution.
Mason and her colleagues started out from the observation that the built environment can have serious public health consequences. So, they wondered whether living next to an exercise facility — and implicitly, building more of them — might help in the fight against obesity.
To find out the answer, the researchers examined data from a large cohort study called the U.K. Biobank study — which ran from 2006 to 2010 — and looked at whether residential proximity to fast food outlets and physical exercise centers had any bearing on weight measurements.
The study included the waist and body mass index (BMI) measurements as well as body fat percentages of approximately 400,000 people.
The findings may inform existing urbanization practices and have a bearing on public policy.
The research included data on adults between 40 and 70 years old who attended a total of 21 assessment centers between 2006 and 2010.
Using multilevel linear regression models and sensitivity analyses, the team accounted for potential confounders. These included individual demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. They also examined whether the findings would depend on sex or household income.
The indoor and outdoor exercise facilities considered included gyms, swimming pools, and sports playing fields, but they did not include public parks or cycling paths.
Almost a third (31.2 percent) of the participants did not have any exercise facilities within 1 kilometer of their home. However, on average, there was one such facility within this distance.
The distance to the first fast food outlet was 1.1 kilometers, on average, and around 18.5 percent of the study participants lived within half a kilometer of fast food.
Overall, the analysis revealed that living close to an exercise facility did, as expected, lower obesity risk.
Individuals living in close proximity to at least six exercise facilities had a waistline that was 1.22 centimeters smaller, a BMI that was 0.57 points lower, and a body fat percentage that was 0.81 percent lower, on average.
This link was stronger for women and higher-income groups of people, note the researchers.
Additionally, the study found that the farther people lived from a fast food outlet, the smaller were their BMI, waistline, and body fat percentage. This association was the strongest among women.
Mason comments on the findings, saying, “The results of our study suggest that increasing access to local physical activity facilities and, possibly, reducing access to fast food close to residential areas could reduce overweight and obesity at the population level.”
“Designing and planning cities in a way that better facilitates healthy lifestyles may be beneficial,” she adds, “and should be considered as part of wider obesity prevention programmes.”
“This could be improved by restricting the number of new fast food outlets in a neighborhood and how close they can be to people’s homes, incentivizing operators of physical activity facilities to open in residential areas with few facilities, or funding local authorities to provide such facilities.”
Co-senior study author Prof. Steven Cummins, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, echoes similar thoughts:
“National and local governments need to think seriously about ‘designing in’ health as cities grow in order to improve health and reduce health inequalities.”
“It would also be important to make sure new physical activity facilities are affordable, especially when they are located in lower-income areas,” Prof. Cummins adds.
“The associations we observed were weaker for people from low-income households,” he continues, “and this might be because they can’t afford to use many of these facilities.”
But they also highlight some limitations to their study, particularly regarding the effects of fast food outlet proximity on weight. They note that not all fast food outlets were considered, some were mistakenly classified as restaurants, and healthful fast foods were not accounted for.
The observational nature of the study, however, means that the team were unable to establish a causal relationship, nor can we know whether fast food outlets and gyms were set up in areas where people are known to have unhealthy or healthy lifestyles, respectively, or whether the reverse is true.