Exercise Habits Strongly Influenced by Neighborhood

The quality of a neighborhood can encourage—or discourage—people to stay physically active and exercise regularly, says a Chicago study led by Christopher Browning, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University. Such factors as levels of poverty, lower education, and more families headed up by women can actively discourage exercise habits. The study found that individual income was less important in determining exercise levels as the type of neighborhood involved.

"We can’t encourage people to exercise more without looking at the neighborhood environment in which they live," said says Christopher Browning, co-author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.. "Some people may have the personal resources and desire to exercise, but don’t live in a neighborhood in which they feel comfortable to go outside for activities."

The study found that neighborhood context was more important for women than for men in determining how much they exercised. Additional factors brought out by the study were that levels of trust among neighbors, perceived violence in the community, and beliefs that neighbors help each other, all contributed to how much people exercised in a specific community.

Ming Wen, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Utah, and Kathleen Cagney, associate professor of health studies at the University of Chicago, collaborated with Browning on the study, the results of which appeared in a recent issue of Urban Studies.

The study examined levels of exercise among 8,782 residents of 373 neighborhoods in Chicago, and combined statistics from three data sources from the 1990s: the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center Metro Survey, the 1990 U.S. Census, and the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods Survey. Social and economic factors, and the level of poverty were found to be the most important factors affecting levels of physical activity, although neighborhood characteristics were judged to be more important in determining a person’s exercise level than income.

"The result is surprising enough that it needs to be confirmed by other studies," said Browning. "But if the finding is substantiated, it would show just how important neighborhoods are, and would have important implications for any new initiatives aimed at enhancing health and well-being." Women’s exercise habits were affected more by the neighborhood than men, which could also explain why African-American women have much higher obesity rates than other groups, said Browning.

Contrary to other research, this study found that once neighborhood factors were taken into account, African Americans in general exercised as much as white residents did. Browning said this finding suggests African Americans will exercise more if they live in neighborhoods where they feel comfortable doing so.

Source: Ohio State University

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