Where you live can affect what you weigh

Social and environmental factors dictate the health challenges and subsequent care demands of communities throughout the nation. The presence or absence of key physical activity and healthy food resources creates neighborhoods that can be conducive to lifestyles and behaviors that lead to obesity and related illnesses.

No two communities are alike and it is unreasonable to approach the obesity epidemic with a one-size-fits all model focused entirely on personal dietary habits. If meaningful and effective change is sought, the environment and a variety of other factors must also be considered.

Many low-income and African American communities contain sub-standard parks; recreational resources are spare, sidewalks don’t connect and there are other safety and aesthetic concerns. All of these factors cumulatively promote physical inactivity, which contributes to obesity.

For years, public health researchers have highlighted the complex and direct relationship between the built environment and health outcomes. With regard to obesity, research shows strong correlations between physical activity resources (gyms, parks, walking areas) and dietary resources (grocery stores, produce, markets) and measurements of personal health like Body Mass Index (BMI) and body fat levels.

Since these resources vary significantly by geography, culture, and economics, it is easy to acknowledge that members of some communities are instantly disadvantaged. Without a level playing field, behavioral strategies like diet and exercise will invariably yield very different results.

Disparities in physical activity and dietary resources are neither minimal nor isolated. Research shows that an increasing number of inner city neighborhoods, many of which are majority African American, simply lack grocery stores and are considered “food deserts.” As a result, residents must either look elsewhere for nutritious food items like fresh produce and unprocessed foods – or they must do without. Such limitations often lead to excessive high caloric consumption. This documented phenomenon is especially concerning when combined with physical activity resource accessibility issues.

While diet, exercise, and other personal changes may begin to address the complex obesity problem, serious and effective solutions must be comprehensive, collaborative, and take the environment and the needs of communities into consideration.

Obesity occurs as part of a complex system comprised of biologic, behavioral, social and environmental factors, and there really is no single silver bullet that communities can use to help everyone maintain a healthy body weight. Communities need multiple, coordinated strategies with a menu of options available to help citizens live healthier lives.

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