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Living near exercise facilities linked to lower BMI and smaller waists

People who live near gyms, pools and playing fields also have a lower body fat percentage

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

People living within a kilometre of physical activity facilities, such as gyms, swimming pools and playing fields, have smaller waist circumferences, lower BMI and lower body fat percentages than people who have no nearby exercise facilities, according to a study* published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Living further away from a fast food outlet was also weakly associated with a smaller waist and lower BMI.

The study included used data from 2006 to 2010 from UK Biobank of people aged 40-70 years old from around the UK, and included waist measurements from 40,1917 people, BMI from 40,1435 people, and body fat percentages from 39,5640 people.

The researchers assessed whether the number of physical activity facilities near an individual’s home and proximity to fast-food outlets were associated with a person’s waist circumference, BMI and body fat percentage. Physical activity facilities included indoor and outdoor facilities for sports or leisure activities (such as gyms, swimming pools and playing fields), but not public parks, or cycling and walking paths.

On average, there was just one physical activity facility within one kilometre of people’s homes, but a third of participants (31.2%) had no facilities within this distance. The average distance to a fast food outlet was 1.1 kilometres, and nearly a fifth of participants (18.5%) lived within 0.5 kilometres of a fast food outlet.

People who had better access to physical activity facilities were less overweight than those who had access to fewer facilities – with those with at least six facilities nearby having a 1.22cm smaller waist circumference, a BMI 0.57 points lower, and a body fat percentage that was 0.81% lower, on average. This effect was stronger among women and people from higher-income backgrounds.

Compared with people living fewer than 0.5 kilometres from a fast food outlet, those living at least two kilometres away had 0.26cm smaller waist circumference, and BMI and body fat percentage were also associated with proximity to a fast food outlet. However, this association was mostly among women, who were less overweight the further they lived from a fast food outlet. The researchers suggested that this could be because women may spend more time in their local neighbourhood, and therefore be exposed to their local fast food outlets more than men.

The findings suggest that increasing access to physical activity facilities, and reducing access to fast food shops in residential areas may have the potential to reduce obesity, but may be more effective for some groups of people than others.

“Policy makers should consider interventions aimed at tackling unhealthy built environments,” says lead author Kate Mason, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK. “Around the world, urbanisation is recognised as a key driver of obesity, and certain features of neighbourhoods are likely to add to this, including a prevalence of fast food outlets and whether we have access to physical activity facilities. These aspects are often unequally distributed and might partly explain persistent social and geographical inequalities in obesity.”

She added: “Designing and planning cities in a way that better facilitates healthy lifestyles may be beneficial and should be considered as part of wider obesity prevention programmes. This could be improved by restricting the number of new fast food outlets in a neighbourhood and how close they can be to people’s homes, incentivising operators of physical activity facilities to open in residential areas with few facilities, or funding local authorities to provide such facilities.”

Senior co-author, Professor Steven Cummins, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, added: “It would also be important to make sure new physical activity facilities are affordable, especially when they are located in lower-income areas. The associations we observed were weaker for people from low-income households and this might be because they can’t afford to use many of these facilities.”

* Mason KE, Pearce N, Cummins S. Associations between fast food and physical activity environments and adiposity in mid-life: cross-sectional, observational evidence from UK Biobank. The Lancet Public Health, December 2017. DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30212-8

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