One might think that getting a little more exercise by walking or cycling would be pretty much an individual thing. After all, isn’t it up to you to make that choice and get moving? It turns out that an individual’s choice can be influenced by their environment: if it is conducive to active living, a person is more likely to make the choice to walk, run or cycle.
The ‘built environment’ is broadly defined as the man-made surroundings that include buildings, public resources, land use patterns, the transportation system and how all these are designed. Research shows strong links between the built environment and eating and physical activity behaviours, which in turn impact health outcomes.
One of the implications of the links between active living and the built environment is the difference that exist among neighbourhoods and communities. Parks, trails, healthy foods and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are not equally available across all communities.
We often find poorer health outcomes in neighbourhoods that lack the quantity and quality of suitable services and spaces. Lower income neighbourhoods can face limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer parks and recreation facilities and higher rates of street crime, all of which are linked to poorer health outcomes.
It starts with having neighbourhoods that are suited to walking and cycling. That means having good sidewalks, trails or other connectors to nearby destinations such as shopping, work or recreation.
Public transit is an essential element because it extends the distance people can travel via foot or bicycle to get to work, shopping or open spaces and recreation facilities. It also helps to get people out of their cars to travel on foot at least a bit more.Public transit is also crucial for lower income families who are less likely to own a car so will be more limited in their choices such as for accessing affordable healthy food.
Parks, recreation facilities and open spaces are another anchor for active living for both adults and children who can make better choices for healthy activity. Good parks don’t just belong in the ‘rich’ neighbourhoods as can sometimes be seen, especially in larger centers. They are even more important for lower income areas whose residents are less likely to engage in healthy activity and don’t have the breadth of choice wealthier residents enjoy.
Having easy access to fresh and affordable food is a starting point to a healthful diet and a good environment supports this. Studies have shown that low-income areas have fewer supermarkets which can force families to shop in much smaller stores where quality and choice are limited, and prices higher.
Healthy people require healthy environments. As you look around your community, do you see enough parks and open spaces where children can play? Are recreational facilities accessible to everyone whatever their income? How easy is it to ride to work or school? If you don’t like the answers, talk to your local city councillor or recreation facility.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.