Environment and Body Mass Index

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(Health Behavior News Service)—New York City residents who live in densely populated, pedestrian-friendly areas have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) levels compared to other New Yorkers, a new study in the March/April issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion finds.


Placing shops, restaurants and public transit near residences may promote walking and independence from private automobiles.

“There are relatively strong associations between built environment and BMI, even in population-dense New York City,” says Andrew Rundle, DrPH, lead study author and an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center.

Researchers looked at data from 13,102 adults from New York City’s five boroughs. Matching information on education, income, height, weight and home address with census data and geographic records, they determined respondents’ access to public transit, proximity to commercial goods and services, and BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height.

The authors discovered that three characteristics of the city environment—living in areas with mixed residential and commercial uses, living near bus and subway stops, and living in population-dense areas—were inversely associated with BMI levels. For example, city dwellers living in areas evenly balanced between residences and commercial use had significantly lower BMIs compared to New Yorkers who lived in mostly residential or commercial areas.

“A mixture of commercial and residential land uses puts commercial facilities that you need for everyday living within walking distance,” Dr. Rundle says. “You’re not going to get off the couch to walk to the corner store if there’s no corner store to walk to.”

While previous studies have addressed the relationship between obesity and the urban built environment in smaller, newer cities, this study is the first to evaluate the relationship in older, larger New York.

This research is important because it shows that environmental factors have a significant relationship to obesity, says Emil Malizia, PhD, chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although population-dense areas may sometimes be associated with crime or other negative attributes, this research shows “there are places that can be healthy environments, in part because they’re dense,” Dr. Malizia says.

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