Don't Let Your “Built Environment” Determine Your Health
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
In my opinion, many people underestimate the power of walking when it comes to overall health benefits. Maybe it’s because we usually don’t sweat a lot when we walk or perhaps our heart rate does not increase significantly. In other words, we tend to associate a good, effective workout with a lot of sweat and a rapidly beating heart.
Walking, however, proves to be super effective for some of the most severe health issues that plague millions of Americans. Take, for example, recent research that found evidence suggesting that people who live in walkable neighborhoods with the ability to go to parks and have access to other outdoor activities are more active and less likely to be obese or have diabetes.
“Nearly half of the adults in the United States have obesity, and over 11 percent of the U.S. population has diabetes,” according to this Medical Xpress report that discusses the research.
“Researchers and policymakers have been searching for an effective way to promote healthy lifestyles at a population level to address these dual epidemics.”
Life is not like it was “back in the day,” when everyone lived in the wilderness and had to walk and do activities outside all of the time. Some of us live in better built environments in regards to health compared to others. For example, I live in sunny California where I have close proximity to several hiking trails and the beach. The weather is beautiful most of the time, and I can get outside and walk. This is not always possible for someone living in New York City or downtown Chicago, or perhaps you live in a more suburban community in a colder climate where you find yourself in the car a lot.
“The built environment is the manmade structures that provide people with living, working and recreational spaces,” according to the report.
“This environment includes buildings, neighborhoods, parks, bike paths, restaurants, shops, roads and public transportation. Human health is affected by the physical environments we construct.”
The research discussed is trying to tell us that we will more likely be healthier if “health” is already built within the fabric of where we live. Healthier habits just become automatic to a certain extent.
"Shifting the transportation choices [from cars to walking or cycling] of local residents may mean that more members of the population can participate in physical activity during their daily routine without structured exercise programs," said one of the doctors referenced in the report.
This is key because due to time constraints many people find it very difficult to commit to structured exercise programs.
Researchers analyzed several studies about the built environment and how it affected public health. One study of more than 30,000 people found that “highly walkable” neighborhoods had less obese people compared to neighborhoods that were not very walkable (43 percent versus 53 percent).
Furthermore, a study of more than one million adults with normal blood sugar levels revealed that rates of prediabetes were 20 percent higher in the populations that lived in less walkable communities after eight years of follow-up. Another study that involved 1.6 million adults discovered a 30 to 50 percent higher chance of developing diabetes in less walkable communities compared to the walkable ones. A Canadian study also revealed that moving from an unwalkable community to a highly walkable one was associated with a 54 percent lower likelihood of being diagnosed with high blood pressure.
“The paper also noted that air pollution and high concentrations of fast-food restaurants are risk factors for diabetes and can substantially reduce the benefits of living in a walkable neighborhood,” according to the report.
If you live in a walkable community, take advantage.
Being sedentary and sitting for prolonged periods of time can be so detrimental to our health that some medical professionals call it “the new smoking.” If you do not live in a community that is favorable to walking and outdoor activities, you might have to be more proactive (especially if you do not currently follow a structured exercise program).
Here are some suggestions for less sitting and more movement:
- Consider getting a standing desk (If you work from home, now is the time to create your workspace to help improve your health).
- Take walking (even if it’s just around your living room) or squat breaks (do a few squats every 30 minutes or so). You can even commit to climbing a few flights of stairs if these are accessible to you. You can also march in place if you do not have a lot of room.
- Make working out in the morning a priority. This helps set healthy intentions for the day (even if it is just for 15 to 20 minutes).
- If you are not already, consider being a dog owner. I walk more than a mile a day, thanks to my dogs!
- Replace evening television time with walking (if the climate you live in permits). You can even do some stretches or jumping jacks during commercial breaks.
- If you do not live in a walkable community, shopping centers are great facilities for getting a lot of walking in.
- Always park far away from the door when running errands. You’d be surprised by how many extra steps you can get in per week by doing this.
- Encourage your kids to play sports. Limit screen time from video games, television and smartphones.
- Enlist the help of an app. As much as technology has encouraged us to sit, we can also use it to our advantage. There are apps you can download that will remind you to stand up and get moving.
- If you have a backyard or even just a little bit of land, consider gardening. You can even grow fresh herbs and veggies. Talk about improving your built in environment!
Don't forget nutrition.
I am a firm believer that eating home cooked meals is best. So if you live in a community with not a lot of healthy restaurant options (and to be honest, the majority of restaurants are not very healthy even if they are being advertised as healthy) this is a great opportunity to make your kitchen a great resource for lasting health. When you cook, you know what is going into the food you are consuming if you eat a mainly unprocessed, plant-based diet with lean healthy proteins such as lentils, fish and beans. It takes effort, but keeping your refrigerator stocked with freshly washed, chopped fruits and veggies is definitely worth it and makes it less likely that you will grab something unhealthy. You can also prepare foods such as quinoa and brown rice in advance. Then, all you have to do is throw a few veggies into a stir-fry for a quick, healthy and delicious meal.
Finally, to ensure that you are nutritionally balanced and that you can move ahead full-steam with moving your body on a daily basis, it is a good idea to get a comprehensive nutrient test. Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods helps, but it does not guarantee that your body is absorbing adequate nutrients from the foods you eat to remain healthy and active.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.