Since the launch of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game in which players must chase and catch fictional characters using a smartphone, people have been walking more than ever. Unlike traditional computer games where you move an avatar with your thumbs from the comfort of your basement, Pokémon Go requires you to physically walk, and in some cases run, outside in the real world. People playing the game have reported all kinds of benefits from community building to improved mental health, but no benefit is touted more than the increase in physical activity. Social media is rife with stories of people inadvertently walking extreme distances or commuting on foot to catch Pokémon. But what if your neighbourhood is not walkable?
A research group at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto recently published a study showing that a neighbourhood’s walkability score may have an impact on whether its inhabitants are obese or at risk of developing diabetes. The study compared the rates of obesity and incidence of diabetes across nearly 9,000 neighbourhoods in Southern Ontario with different walkability scores over an eleven year period. Walkability was scored on population density and number of destinations within a walkable distance on well-connected streets.
Between 2001 and 2012, the investigators found that the prevalence of obesity increased in less walkable neighbourhoods, but did not change in areas of higher walkability. They also found that the incidence of new diabetes cases fell in areas with a high walkability score but did not change in less walkable areas. As you may expect, rates of walking, cycling or using public transit were higher than that of car use in neighbourhoods with a high walkability score, though other factors like diet, smoking patterns and time spent exercising for fun was consistent across neighbourhoods and did not change over time.
Though activity level is only one factor affecting our waistlines, examining the impact of the design of our physical environment on our ability to stay fit may be an important step in addressing the obesity epidemic.