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Home » Library » Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl: A National Analysis of Physical Activity, Obesity and Chronic Disease

Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl: A National Analysis of Physical Activity, Obesity and Chronic Disease

People living in counties marked by sprawling development are more likely to walk less, weigh more, and suffer from high blood pressure than people who live in less sprawling counties. These results hold true after controlling for factors such as age, education, gender, and race and ethnicity. In addition to presenting research findings, this report summarizes recent research done by others on the links between the way we’ve built our communities, physical activity, and health,as well as present recommendations for change and resources for those interested in further exploration of this topic.
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This report presents the first national study to show a clear association between the type of place people live and their activity levels, weight, and health. The study, Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity, found that people living in counties marked by sprawling development are likely to walk less and weigh more than people who live in less sprawling counties. In addition, people in more sprawling counties are more likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure).

These results hold true after controlling for factors such as age, education, gender, and race and ethnicity. Researchers measured the degree of sprawl with a county ‘sprawl index’ that used data available from the US Census Bureau and other federal sources to quantify development patterns in 448 counties in urban areas across the United States. Counties with a higher degree of sprawl received a lower numerical value on the index, and county sprawl index scores range from 63 for the most sprawling county to 352 for the least sprawling county.

Sprawling counties are spread-out areas where homes are far from any other destination, and often the only route between the two may be on a busy high-speed arterial road that is unpleasant or even unsafe for biking or walking. Driving is the most convenient way to get everything done, and residents are less likely to have easy opportunities to walk, bicycle, or take transit as part of their daily routine.

Previous research has shown that people living in sprawling areas drive more, while people living in compact communities are more likely to walk. Medical research has shown that walking and similar moderate physical activity is important to maintaining healthy weight and bestows many other health benefits. What is groundbreaking about this study is that it is the first national study to establish a direct association between the form of the community and the health of the people who live there.

These study findings are in line with a growing body of research which shows that community design influences how people travel and how physically active they are in the course of the day. While more research is needed, urban planners, public health officials, and citizens are already looking to change communities to make it easier to get out on a bicycle or on foot.


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Last modified by Gayle Diehl

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