Neighborhood Fitness

If you want to get in good physical shape, live in an affluent neighborhood with a supportive community spirit and lots of women. At least that’s one of the conclusions you could draw from a recent study of the relative effect that a neighborhood’s social support systems and degree of affluence have on how much people in the neighborhood exercise. The study is by Ming Wen of the University of Utah and her colleagues and was published in Urban Studies.

One part of the framework for the study is the extensive research on how and how much the built environment affects individual levels of physical activity. Some studies say it does to a modest degree, other studies say it doesn’t. What about the social environment? We know that a community’s social environment has a profound effect on overall health. So it’s sensible to ask how and how much the social environment affects physical activity.

Another part of the framework for the study is that individualized programs to increase exercise have mixed, mostly ineffective results. The consistency of results seems to have more to do with environmental factors than individual factors. In other words, the problem isn’t simply that people haven’t gotten the word that exercise is good for them but that to take hold each person needs the right environmental queues. Some researchers claim, for example, that your neighborhood’s average household income has more of an effect on how much you exercise than your personal household income.

The Wen study examines two aspects of neighborhood social environments. One aspect is the strength (or weakness) of mutually supportive relationships in a neighborhood, measured by such things as how much people trust each other and how much they fear for their safety. This is referred to as “social capital”—personally, I prefer “social wealth” but the dominant ideology of our time has infected the concept and so we’re stuck with it.

The other aspect of neighborhood social environments is how tough the day-to-day struggle is in general for the neighborhood, measured by such things as the average household income, the number of households headed by a single mother, and the number of households living below the poverty line. This is referred to as “neighborhood deprivation”—again, I’d prefer something like “neighborhood affluence” so that having more of it is a good thing like having more social capital is generally a good thing.

No one should be surprised that as a neighborhood’s social capital increases, people living their have better health generally and exercise more. Neither should anyone be surprised that as neighborhood deprivation increases, people living there have worse health and exercise less. What the Wen study found that was new is that neighborhood deprivation has a much more powerful effect than social capital on physical activity. This seems to link up nicely with the idea that the quality of the built environment has a positive effect on exercise since neighborhoods with greater deprivation are likely to have a lower quality physical environment.

As a surprise inside, when Wen and her colleagues looked at demographic variables, the only one they found to have an effect was the relative proportion of women living in the neighborhood: more women, more exercise.

The Wen study is an example of science that makes sense to us. You might even feel “Well! Big surprise!” That sells it short. This study does something science is supposed to do: make sense and help us better understand the obvious.

So does this mean that to get the exercise you need you should pack your bags and move to a wealthy, supportive neighborhood with lots of women?

No, it does not. It means that your social environment is sending you messages that get translated into your desire and commitment to exercise. Think of it as advertising and treat it that way.

Yet the reality of where you live remains—which you and your neighbors have the power to change. You’ll no doubt need some outside resources, but that’s not where it starts.

The key to physical fitness is an environment over which you have control and an environment that supports your ability to care for yourself (including your physical fitness). Personal fitness needs neighborhood fitness. That’s accomplished, not by some distant agency building better sidewalks and planting trees, but by empowering each and all of us in the sometimes difficult task of taking control of the place we live.

These issues are discussed further in our book Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health.