Is your environment making you fat?

Is your environment making you fat?

It seems obvious that ease of access to green space and pleasant places to walk would influence the amount of walking and other outdoor exercise you do but this report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) set out to prove a connection.  The researchers compared the rates of physical activity, childhood obesity and diabetes in England’s nine most populous cities and found a clear correlation between the amount of green space, density of housing in urban areas and the overall health of the local population.

One of the most interesting contrasts is between Sandwell in the north-west of Birmingham – very close to where I grew up – and Solihull in the south-east. They’re just a few miles apart yet nearly 26 per cent of children in Sandwell are obese compared with just 14.1 per cent of those in Solihull. While income-related health inequalities play a part, the study shows that 69 per cent of Solihull’s land is taken up by green space, including two large parks, and only 3.4 per cent of the area is covered by housing. Just one third of Sandwell’s land is green space and the parks are much smaller. Is that just a co-incidence?

Where I live now, at the foot of Australia’s Blue Mountains, couldn’t be more different from Sandwell. The houses are generally one or two storey, detached and with large gardens. We’re surrounded by bush and there are many parks and sports field nearby. But poor planning has still created what’s come to be known as an obesogenic environment.

Here, as in many newer suburbs, there are no footpaths. So-called ‘nature strips’ – areas of grass –  stretch from the front fence to the kerb. They look attractive and, from a council point of view are a godsend – they’re mowed and maintained by whoever lives in the adjoining house. But you can’t push a pushchair on them or wheel a wheelchair and, when it’s been raining, if you’re not wearing wellingtons, forget it. As the only alternative is to use the road, they effectively force people to use a car for even the shortest journeys

Governments on both sides of the world keep talking about the obesity crisis and how much it’s costing, and urging us to do more exercise. It would be good if they stopped actively discouraging it.