You're planning to move, and you're sure you've thought of everything: a good school system, affordable property taxes, a manageable commute. But what about your health? It turns out that where you live may have an impact on your risk of obesity and diabetes.
A study published this month in Archives of Internal Medicine found that living in a healthy neighborhood—defined as one that encourages you to ditch the car keys, get moving, and eat more healthfully—may lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 38 percent. Previous research has found that living somewhere with these qualities may lower the risk of obesity. "Some neighborhoods encourage people to make healthful choices by providing the amenities and opportunities for those choices," says Jennifer Black, lead author of a review about neighborhoods and obesity published last year in Nutrition Reviews. Other neighborhoods have barriers to physical activity and to making healthful dietary choices, such as high crime rates or no (or limited) access to shopping or services within walking distance, she says. So find a place where you "feel safe to live, move, walk, work, shop, and eat," as well as participate in community activities that meet your social needs, Black says. Here are some specific things to look for to make your next neighborhood a healthy one:
Walkability of the neighborhood, including sidewalks. Some new neighborhoods that encourage physical activity are built so that residents can walk to obtain nearly all of the services they need—dry cleaning, restaurants, hair salons, barber shops, gyms, and more. But it's harder to re-engineer an existing neighborhood to include these services, so this kind of place may be tough to find, says Steven Smith, executive director of the Translational Research Institute at the Florida Hospital and Burnham Institute for Medical Research at Lake Nona in Orlando. Even if you have to get in the car for your errands, though, look out for sidewalks so you can at least move within your neighborhood.
Nearby parks with walking trails, bicycle paths, and playgrounds. The more you get moving, the better, experts say, and trails and paths set aside for bikers and walkers may encourage you to be more active rather than stay home watching television. The same goes for the kids, says Amy Auchincloss, assistant professor of epidemiology at Drexel University's School of Public Health and the lead author of the new Archives study on type 2 diabetes. If adults get active, "hopefully their kids will follow," she says.
Ability to add some movement to your commute. "If you're engaging in physical activity to commute to work or get around, then that's less time that you have to be doing intentional exercise," Auchincloss says. So that time you spend walking to or from the bus or subway counts as physical activity, too.
Access to healthful foods and services. Many people choose to eat out rather than prepare food at home, but restaurant foods tend to include larger portions and higher calories, Auchincloss says. So instead, when looking for a new neighborhood, check for nearby grocery stores or farmers' markets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. But don't be absolutist; it may not even matter if some of those shopping and eating options include fast food restaurants and convenience stores, according to research published in the November issue of Social Science and Medicine. The study found that people who had diverse food options—including fast food, convenience stores, restaurants, and grocery stores—were 10 percent less likely to be obese than people who lived more than a half mile away from food options.
Obviously, not everyone is able to choose the ideal residential neighborhood, says Auchincloss; a lower household income makes it tough to find an area that encourages healthier behavior. (For example, inner-city neighborhoods may have limited access to grocery stores or farmers' markets.) But for people who do have that luxury and want to maintain good health, it's important to look for neighborhoods that support or encourage good habits, she says.