The design of cities is an international health priority | World Obesity Federation

The design of cities is an international health priority

NewsThe design of cities is an international health priority

Author: James Sallis, PhD

Distinguished Professor, University of California, San Diego and International Physical activity and Environment Network (IPEN)  

Obesity is an international problem, so we need solutions that can be applied internationally. There is increasing interest in the role of environments in obesity, with media coverage about such topics as food deserts and living in unwalkable suburbs . My presentation at the International Congress on Obesity (ICO) links the design of cities with physical activity and obesity.  

The special thing about the study is that it was conducted in 17 cities in 12 countries on five continents, with countries including Mexico, Colombia, Belgium, China (Hong Kong), and New Zealand. Many collaborators have been working on the IPEN (International Physical activity and Environment Network) Adult Study for over a decade. Previous studies had been conducted in single countries, mainly in North America, Europe, and Australasia. IPEN also included studies from South America and Asia. I will be describing two results from analyses that combine the data from all or almost all of the countries.  

In one set of analyses, we learned that several aspects of environments in cities were related to total physical activity, monitored with an electronic device. People were most active when their neighborhoods were densely populated, had several parks nearby, had good access to transit, and had highly connected streets that provide direct routes from  place to place. The difference between living in cities with the best and worst conditions for physical activity was dramatic, with up to 89 minutes per week of physical activity among people in activity-supportive cities. Importantly, the findings were similar across cities. This means there appear to be general principles for designing active cities that can be applied worldwide, though attention needs to be paid to local conditions.  

Other analyses examined how perceptions of neighborhood environments were related to body mass index (BMI) and obesity. Surprisingly, perceived safety from traffic was most strongly related to lower risk of obesity. Other important factors were proximity to shops and services as well as perceived safety from crime.  

Together these results identify several aspects of the design and management of cities that can be altered to increase physical activity and reduce risk of obesity. However, implementing these changes will require the collaboration of health professionals with diverse sectors of government and society, including city planning, transportation, law enforcement, parks and recreation, and real estate development. Health professionals have a responsibility to become informed advocates for creating healthier environments.  

You can learn all about James' discoveries at ICO 2016 on Monday 2nd May

His talk is ‘Does The Built Environment Influence Obesity? A Global Perspective.’ and takes place at 10:30-12:30 in Track 5: Home Environment and Influences of the Wider Environment.   

Click here for more information on ICO. 

Click here for a recent interview James gave World Obesity. 


*If you are a HCP looking for information around healthy environments and obesity, your national obesity association would be a valuable resource. Click here to find their contact details. 

If your country does not have an association, World Obesity has individual membership, find out more here

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