Does Your Neighborhood Affect Your Health?

A couple of decades ago I worked for a non-profit agency that worked to promote girls’ and women’s health through physical activity. One project in particular still resonates with me, in which a neighborhood alliance contacted us regarding a local park that was being renovated by the city. The alliance wanted to ensure that the park was as accessible to girls and women in the neighborhood as it was for boys and men, and they wanted our help.In its original form, the park featured several basketball courts, a baseball diamond and an aging playground. Through our research and by contacting residents near the park, we recommended a walking trail around the park, more girl-friendly components to the playground and safety features, such as better lighting and landscaping that was more open with mature trees rather than thick shrubbery. The renovation of this park is a great example of how your neighborhood can either support or discourage your efforts to be healthy. In its original condition, the park’s basketball courts were used as a hangout and were covered with litter and broken glass, and there were few reasons for neighborhood residents to use it. Beyond clean drinking water and regular trash removal, there are a number of factors related to where you live that have very real impacts on your health. For example: -Walkability and the relationship to heart health. It’s well-known that a lack of exercise can raise your risk for health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. However, living in the suburbs, the absence of sidewalks and safety issues can be deterrents to getting outside and walking in your neighborhood—a simple and easy way to be active. As communities expand outward into the suburbs and beyond, the distance between your home, stores and workplace make driving or riding public transportation unavoidable. In addition, urban communities without sidewalks or safe places to walk reduce easy opportunities for residents to get physical activity, forcing them to find other places and ways to exercise than walking in their neighborhood. –Green space and overall health. There has been a great deal of research about the health benefits of spending time in green places, such as the woods or a park. Exposure to green space has been associated with decreased blood pressure, improved immunity and lower levels of stress and the stress-related hormone cortisol, so much so that some doctors are prescribing time in a local park to their patients. Working out in green space can lower your level of perceived exertion, which means that a hard workout done in a park may feel easier, making your workout more effective. In addition, being active or having access to green or wooded areas feels good—it’s more relaxing and enjoyable than being outdoors in areas that are devoid of trees and greenery. -Health impact of blue space. Living near water can also be a positive when it comes to your health. Whether you live near a pond in a city park, a small creek, a fountain or the ocean, nearby blue space in the form of water can be good for you. A research study involving 18,000 participants in 18 countries found that people who live near water report better mental and physical well-being. And other research has found that people who live near water have a lower risk of premature death, a decreased risk of being obese and better mental health than subjects who don’t live near the water. Blue space is beneficial because the sight and sound of water is relaxing, but more importantly, living near a lake or the beach promotes physical activity in the form of walking, swimming and paddling. -Grocery stores and nutrition. Communities that have access to local grocery stores, especially those that are walkable, promote good nutrition. However, many poorer urban communities tend to have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores, which has a very real impact on residents’ nutritional status and overall health. A study in Sweden found that when people moved from an area with few fast food restaurants to one with more, their risk for type 2 diabetes rose significantly. Communities that lack of grocery stores and local food markets also tend to be less walkable and contain fewer parks. These are just a few examples of how your neighborhood can have an influence on both your physical and mental health. To some extent, cities are responding. A number of communities are creating mixed-use neighborhoods. Some are building apartments that contain retail space on the ground floor, and others are creating pockets of retail and residential space. Some suburbs and even larger cities are recreating “main streets” that are near homes, but walkable to stores. Bike lanes, walking paths and local parks are being built, water features are being added and empty lots are being repurposed into gardens. Whenever I drive by the city park that I played a small part in renovating, I smile. Not because of my role, but b

Does Your Neighborhood Affect Your Health?

A couple of decades ago I worked for a non-profit agency that worked to promote girls’ and women’s health through physical activity. One project in particular still resonates with me, in which a neighborhood alliance contacted us regarding a local park that was being renovated by the city. The alliance wanted to ensure that the park was as accessible to girls and women in the neighborhood as it was for boys and men, and they wanted our help.

In its original form, the park featured several basketball courts, a baseball diamond and an aging playground. Through our research and by contacting residents near the park, we recommended a walking trail around the park, more girl-friendly components to the playground and safety features, such as better lighting and landscaping that was more open with mature trees rather than thick shrubbery.

The renovation of this park is a great example of how your neighborhood can either support or discourage your efforts to be healthy. In its original condition, the park’s basketball courts were used as a hangout and were covered with litter and broken glass, and there were few reasons for neighborhood residents to use it.

Beyond clean drinking water and regular trash removal, there are a number of factors related to where you live that have very real impacts on your health. For example:

-Walkability and the relationship to heart health. It’s well-known that a lack of exercise can raise your risk for health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. However, living in the suburbs, the absence of sidewalks and safety issues can be deterrents to getting outside and walking in your neighborhood—a simple and easy way to be active. As communities expand outward into the suburbs and beyond, the distance between your home, stores and workplace make driving or riding public transportation unavoidable. In addition, urban communities without sidewalks or safe places to walk reduce easy opportunities for residents to get physical activity, forcing them to find other places and ways to exercise than walking in their neighborhood.

–Green space and overall health. There has been a great deal of research about the health benefits of spending time in green places, such as the woods or a park. Exposure to green space has been associated with decreased blood pressure, improved immunity and lower levels of stress and the stress-related hormone cortisol, so much so that some doctors are prescribing time in a local park to their patients. Working out in green space can lower your level of perceived exertion, which means that a hard workout done in a park may feel easier, making your workout more effective. In addition, being active or having access to green or wooded areas feels good—it’s more relaxing and enjoyable than being outdoors in areas that are devoid of trees and greenery.

-Health impact of blue space. Living near water can also be a positive when it comes to your health. Whether you live near a pond in a city park, a small creek, a fountain or the ocean, nearby blue space in the form of water can be good for you. A research study involving 18,000 participants in 18 countries found that people who live near water report better mental and physical well-being. And other research has found that people who live near water have a lower risk of premature death, a decreased risk of being obese and better mental health than subjects who don’t live near the water. Blue space is beneficial because the sight and sound of water is relaxing, but more importantly, living near a lake or the beach promotes physical activity in the form of walking, swimming and paddling.

-Grocery stores and nutrition. Communities that have access to local grocery stores, especially those that are walkable, promote good nutrition. However, many poorer urban communities tend to have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores, which has a very real impact on residents’ nutritional status and overall health. A study in Sweden found that when people moved from an area with few fast food restaurants to one with more, their risk for type 2 diabetes rose significantly. Communities that lack of grocery stores and local food markets also tend to be less walkable and contain fewer parks.

These are just a few examples of how your neighborhood can have an influence on both your physical and mental health. To some extent, cities are responding. A number of communities are creating mixed-use neighborhoods. Some are building apartments that contain retail space on the ground floor, and others are creating pockets of retail and residential space. Some suburbs and even larger cities are recreating “main streets” that are near homes, but walkable to stores. Bike lanes, walking paths and local parks are being built, water features are being added and empty lots are being repurposed into gardens.

Whenever I drive by the city park that I played a small part in renovating, I smile. Not because of my role, but because even twenty-five years ago, there were neighborhood residents who recognized the importance that a patch of green space could have on the health of the people who lived nearby, and they did something about it.