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Is Your Zip Code Hampering Your Health?

Would you consider moving if it meant better health for you and your family? A new study from the University of Colorado in Denver suggests that your address affects not just your mortgage, but also your likelihood of being diagnosed with obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and asthma. That’s quite a laundry list.

A growing amount of attention has been paid recently to how city design affects the health of the people who live there, and this study co-authored by UC Denver PhD student Daniel Piatkowski sheds a bit more light on the factors at play.

Examining more than 50,000 adults in 24 medium-sized cities in California, the team of researchers demonstrated that seemingly innocuous factors like longer distances between intersections and wider roads with more lanes were associated with increased rates of obesity and diabetes.

I first started to pay attention to city design and how it affects the health of the people who live there when I was a fitness editor at Prevention magazine, working on an a then-annual report on “The Best Walking Cities” (http://bit.ly/KazrVf). Talking to researchers just like the team from Denver, I learned that so-called “walkability” of an area makes a big difference in how much locals are likely to take to the streets.  

I also learned that it’s often at odds with cars. I’m never more reminded of this than when I have to drive down a particular street in Syracuse that cuts through Syracuse University’s campus. There is literally a light at every single (very short) block—and not only that, but they turn red one after the other. As a driver, it’s infuriating. “Why can’t they time these lights better?” I want to know. After all, there are few things more frustrating (especially when you’re running late as I often am) than waiting for a red light only have it turn green—and the next light turn red. But what I realize from speaking to city planners is that those lights aren’t designed to help me, the driver, make it through without having to stop. They’re designed TO make me stop, something that’s called “traffic calming.” Ensuring that cars have to stop keeps them from speeding dangerously through pedestrian-heavy areas. And, as the UC Denver research confirms, that translates to more walking and healthier citizens.

Besides my personal battles on Waverly Avenue, there are bigger, more politicized battles in my hometown over this people vs. cars debate. Decades ago, when suburbanization was on the rise and cars were king, a giant elevated highway was slapped down through the middle of Syracuse dividing the downtown area from the university (http://n.pr/1kzowWb). As a driver, this makes it very easy to get into and out of the city—if you live in the ‘burbs. For city residents it creates a city divided, hampering urban development. With the highway crumbling and in need of an overhaul, what to do next is a hotly contested issue. Fix it? Rebuild it? Tear it down and turn it into a flower-lined boulevard? Drop it down into a tunnel so pedestrians can safely traverse from above? The pro-walkability advocate in me wants to tear that sucker down, but the fact that doing so could leave traffic choked is a risk that’s not lost on me either.

It’s not just street design that factored into the UC study. Unsurprisingly, the food environment factored into obesity rates: more fast food restaurants and convenience stores = more obesity. But here’s one that’s a bit more surprising: The mere presence of a big box store was linked to a 14 percent rise in obesity and a 25 percent increase in diabetes rates.

Sure, you can be fit and healthy wherever you live. But anyone who’s ever struggled to establish a regular exercise habit knows that the more seamlessly it fits into your life, the more likely you are to do it—and do it daily. As for me, I’m grateful to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks, parks, and a coffee shop where I’m currently typing away at this blog—all within a short walk or bike ride. I’m also grateful to have a car and a driveway for when I just don’t feel like it.

But to my original question—would I move? I think I would, though I may be among the minority. I would rather have a shorter commute (ideally one that doesn’t involve a car), even if it means a fewer square feet and a smaller yard. Life’s too short to spend it in rush hour. How about you? Where does walkability rank on your dream home wish list?

2 Comments Post a Comment
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Cat
by NyanKitsune, Aug 25, 2014
It's pretty much a given if there is a lot of low priced fast food places around you that 9 chances out of 10 you will stop off at them as some meals are cheaper than if you bought the ingredients as well as being more convenient. Moving is not the answer to it though, more willpower is.

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Monster
by Eyebally, Sep 25, 2014
Yes

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