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Postcode perils

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Is your neighbourhood making you fat? That is the question a group of Europe-based researchers set out to answer in a unique study aimed at finding out what it is about where people live that has an impact on their diet and exercise habits.

Analysing data from more than 6000 people living in Paris, London, Ghent, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Budapest, they found that levels of physical activity, self-rated health and happiness were associated with how people perceived and used their neighbourhood.

In a result that has big implications for urban planning and design, the study found that residents of lower socio-economic areas perceived their environment as less conducive to healthy behaviour than those in more affluent areas. Surveys found that neighbourhood perception was not only associated with objective features such as traffic safety and aesthetics, but also with social cohesion.

Higher levels of social networking and cohesion were associated with better self-rated health, lower odds of obesity and higher fruit consumption.

The four-year SPOTLIGHT study was supported by Google Street View, which assisted in measuring factors such as green spaces, street layout and food outlets in different areas. Features such as the presence of food outlets, outdoor recreation facilities, and green spaces varied significantly between the cities included in the study.

Lead researcher Jeroen Lakerveld from the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam said in future, neighbourhoods should be designed on the basis of how their structures will affect the physical health of inhabitants.

“Urban planners and policy makers have a responsibility to ensure the neighbourhoods they design, and the facilities and businesses that the neighbourhoods contain, will promote health behaviour, and is protective against unhealthy behaviours,” Dr Lakerveld said.

“It could save millions in health care costs if health promotion focuses on upstream determinants of healthy behaviours, including healthy food purchases and greater physical activity.

“The best neighbourhoods are those which facilities to support good health and also encourage social networking and community support.”

Co-editor Dr Harry Rutter, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the collection of papers provides a robust evidence based for policy makers.

“We have known for some years that where a person lives will affect their health, and now we can see more clearly exactly how that happens and, in practice, what we need to do about it,” Dr Rutter said.

The SPOTLIGHT project is funded by the European Commission, and the study was published in Obesity Reviews.

Kirsty Waterford