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Where the Sidewalk Ends: How Our Neighborhoods Affect the Way We Move How Sidewalks, Shops, and Crimes Affect Our Exercise Rates

Environmental factors could have a big influence on how often we get off our butts.

I went running in my neighborhood recently—at least, I was running, until the sidewalk disappeared about a mile into my planned route. Getting stuck between four lanes of traffic and a thrush of overgrown trees isn’t exactly my preferred method of raising my heart rate, but I live in Los Angeles, a sprawling city where humans aren’t generally expected to walk, much less traverse miles of land on foot all at once. That's changed the way I move. Now, a new study helps to explain what happens to a city's exercise levels when the sidewalk ends.

Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study examines how environmental factors—including crime rates, sidewalks, proximity to local businesses, and access to recreational facilities—change the way we walk, bike, and run. The study focused particularly on American women, who tend to be both more risk-averse and less active than American men. Presumably, our environmental factors could have a greater influence on how often we get active—research shows that people who don't live within a half-mile of a park or other open space are less likely to exercise.

The bulk of the study's results are what you might expect—heightened rates of crime make us less likely to leave the house, and increasing access to local shops makes us more likely to hit the streets. But the sidewalk question revealed some interesting differences in how women relate to exercise. Women living in the Midwest and the South said they were more likely to get active when sidewalks were plentiful, but access to sidewalks didn't affect the physical activity rates of women in the Northeast and West.

The researchers posit that "cumulative effects" of environmental attributes could affect these results—like, say, if a woman lacks both an extensive sidewalk network and access to recreational facilities like gyms. Either way, it's important to know that that getting Americans to exercise requires designing cities with exercisers in mind, then investing in the infrastructure to make that happen. It takes a village to get us off our butts.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user katerha

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