A study conducted jointly by the Saint Louis University School of Public Health and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services finds that negative perceptions of safety and pleasantness of a community, as well having no outdoor exercise facilities, may be contributing to overweight people in the state and nation.
According to the report, Missourians who indicated in telephone surveys that they consider their neighborhoods unsafe and unpleasant were one-and-one-half times more likely to be overweight than individuals who said they considered their neighborhoods safe and pleasant. In addition, those who reported not having access to outdoor exercise facilities such as walking or running tracks, basketball or tennis courts, and swimming pools, were more likely to be overweight than those who had access to such facilities.
"We often think of overweight in individuals being caused just by people overeating and not exercising," said Bert Malone, Director of the Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. "But this study shows that some of the overweight problem may be due to the environment in which people live."
According to Ross Brownson, Ph.D., chair of community health and professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University School of Public Health, more than 2,800 Missouri adults were asked about their specific concerns about crime safety, traffic safety, and "pleasantness" of their communities. The more negative characteristics an individual noted, the more likely that person was to be overweight.
"Crime, traffic, poor lighting, abandoned buildings and graffiti can all impact whether or not people feel safe to walk or participate in other physical activities in their neighborhoods," Brownson said. "This study, for the first time, links those perceptions of unsafe neighborhoods with increased likelihood of being overweight."
Brownson said that while most people realize the health benefits of physical activity and being at recommended weight levels, those messages are not having much impact. In fact, the prevalence of obesity in Missouri increased 65 percent from 1991 to 1998.
"There certainly is no shortage of public health messages reminding people to be physically active," said Brownson.
"But this study suggests that changing communities by making them safer and offering people access to community parks, public recreation facilities, and walking and biking trails may help reduce the prevalence of overweight by promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles," Brownson added.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services recently announced the creation of the Missouri Council on the Prevention and Management of Overweight and Obesity. The Council's charge is to review the health and economic impact of overweight and obesity in Missouri, and to identify actions that need to be taken, according to the department's director, Richard C. Dunn. Dunn said the Council recognizes the need for a coordinated approach to addressing the problem, including a focus on environmental policies and strategies.
The study, titled "Environmental and Policy Factors Associated with Overweight Among Adults in Missouri," is published this month in the American Journal of Health Promotion.