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City planning may help or hinder healthy exercise

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Houston, where I grew up, seemed devoid of sidewalks. It was a 45 minute freeway drive from where I lived to downtown. According to exercise data analyzed by University of Chicago epidemiologist Ningqi Hou, PhD, this urban sprawl may have something to do with Houston's consistent status as one of America's top ten fattest cities.

Hou connected the exercise habits of people in a 20-year study of cardiovascular health to the physical layout of their neighborhood streets. As Science Life's Rob Mitchum reports:

A higher density of intersections was associated with more outdoor exercise, suggesting that long, country roads are better suited to physical activity when they are connected instead of remote. That information could be valuable for civic planners looking to build “exurban” neighborhoods that promote health, instead of sprawling suburbs filled with meandering drives and cul de sacs.

In cities, Hou discovered that street density tends to discourage exercise, but only among women. She suggests that the unusual sex difference may have something to do with poverty or the fear of crime - which plague denser, urban neighborhoods. Also, as Mitchum observes:

Some exercisers may actually be inconvenienced rather than improved by a thick network of streets and intersections in the city; for instance, cyclists who have to brake at red lights and stop signs every block. The complex effect found in Hou’s study underscores that smart civic development - and smart physical activity interventions tailored to the unique character of a neighborhood - are what is needed to reverse unhealthy trends in Americans both rural and urban.

Previously: Health benefits of bike commuting outweigh the risks
Photo by istolethetv

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