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The Power of Place

How much does where you live impact your health?

Do you ever have one of those “aha” moments when things just click for you in a different way? When something you’ve already known for a long time finally hits home? That’s what happened to me last week – It only took running across the country to realize it.

See, in my line of work we talk a lot about “place” – about the environment a person lives in and how that affects his or her health. From an individual’s social situation, to how easy (or tough) it is to get to a grocery store, to whether or not there are parks, or open space, or sidewalks or bike lanes – anything that can help a person be active in their community. Studies have found that living near a recreation center, or close to your job or stores, within a supportive social environment, or in a neighborhood that is walkable (safe, has useable sidewalks, etc.) can all increase physical activity (source). Basically, neighborhoods that were designed for pedestrians instead of cars increase the chances that residents will be more active, and decrease their risk for overweight and obesity.

walkable neighborhoodPhoto via skunks

My job, in part, is to talk about the factors that make it easier for people to be active, and help remove barriers to physical activity in communities.

Even though I think and talk about this stuff all day long, it didn’t really hit home in my own life. I mean, no one ever said that someone who lives in a less walkable neighborhood will find it impossible to exercise – just that the better designed your neighborhood is, the easier it will be. And in case you haven’t noticed, I sort of like to exercise. I pick endurance events to train for, and even though I live in a very small state, for the most part, I enjoy running around it. I figured where I actually lived wasn’t going to affect that at all.

But then I moved. And I found myself struggling to find the motivation to run that I once had. I found myself feeling unsettled in my new place. At first, I blamed it on just being stuck in a rut. On the start of summer (and the heat!), and how I’ve been traveling so much that I haven’t really been able to take the time to settle in. I kept trying to rationalize this all in my mind, but nothing made sense. …until I went to San Diego.


Downtown San Diego vs. My Neighborhood

San Diego

For those of you who have never been, San Diego is like my dream-land. People are out being active all the time. Biking, running, walking the dog, walking themselves. No matter the time of day, people were outside.

A lot of this has to do with the environment.


The weather is perfect – low humidity, lots of sun, temperatures that rarely go above 75. There is plenty of public transportation – a light rail system, buses that run on a regular schedule (ahem, RIPTA). There are many recreation options – pocket parks around every corner, a bike path that runs along the rail system, the beautiful Embarcadero and path that runs along the water’s edge.


Sidewalks are wide and on both sides of the street. There are walkways built that connect pedestrians to destinations and parks.

MLK Promenade San Diego(source)

And there are many places to walk to – including restaurants, shops, and even a full service grocery store.



My Neighborhood

For the sake of privacy, I’m not going to show you pictures of my neighborhood, or tell you where it is (though I’m sure those of you in RI can easily guess). But trust me when I say that it is nothing like San Diego.

The weather is all over the place – we have a little thing called “seasons” on the East Coast, and while I love summer and fall (and parts of spring), the weather is not always ideal for being outdoors. We deal with freezing temperatures and snow in winter; scorching temperatures and heat in summer.

The public transportation system is less than reliable. You can take a train to MA, but not around RI. The bus system is all funneled through downtown (not exactly convenient) and only a fraction of the buses actually run regularly…or on time.

While I do have sidewalks in my neighborhood, the recreation options are lacking. There is one small park by my house that everyone uses as a bathroom for their dogs (I can’t complain, I do too). And while there is a bike lane or two nearby, the surrounding area is overgrown and deserted. Traffic forces me to stop on the run every few minutes, and when I’m running, I’m not one of the happy crowd of runners, walkers, and cyclists. There are no other runners to smile at as I pass. Instead, people look at me like I’m crazy. There are places to walk to, but that mostly includes restaurants. And while I can’t complain about the fact that there are many delicious places to eat within steps of my home, that doesn’t exactly encourage an active lifestyle. If you could walk to restaurants but not a grocery store or a nice place to run, you tell me what you’d be most likely to spend your time doing.

So What??

As much as it may sound like it, I’m not trying to knock Little Rhodey. And I’m not trying to find an excuse for my decreased motivation to run, or blame my environment for not being able to workout (guess I’ll just take up recreational eating instead). I know ultimately, the choice to keep running is mine.

But I am saying that the relationship between the environment and behavior is there, and it’s pretty interesting! In my line of work, a lot of the focus is on improving the environment of disadvantaged populations (as it should be), but no one is really immune to it. I find it a little funny that it took me traveling across the country to realize how much where I live impacts my habits – and how much more enjoyable I find walking and running when the area around me supports it.

While that’s not going to change for me anytime soon, now that I’m more aware of it I’m hoping that I can at least try to overcome it. By finding new places to run or just approaching it with a new attitude, I’m hoping running will become a little more fun again.

I’m interested to hear – what is your neighborhood like? Do you run/walk/bike there, or do you travel other places to be active? And how to you think where you live affects your behavior (if at all)?

Final thoughts: I think I might start incorporating polls into HOTR more often! It’s been really fun to watch the results. So far the “it depends” group is ahead (I knew I shouldn’t have included that middle category! Winking smile) with the “great outdoors” close behind. Have you weighed in yet?

35 Responses to The Power of Place

  1. This is so interesting! We picked our last two places to lived based on proximity to good running routes. But it’s still not great. Running on sidewalks and stopping for cars and lights often will never hold a candle to my beloved, awesome park system in NJ. And we’ve never lived in an area with bike lanes which is downright dangerous.

    Here’s the deal: let’s both move to San Diego! I’m going to look up local public health jobs now 😉

    • It’s a deal! Now if only I could find one of those awesome jobs that let you work from anywhere…or knew someone with connections… 😉

  2. I guess I live in an in between area. Living in CT means the weather is pretty much a crap shoot. My neighborhood has narrow sidewalks, but at least they’re there. I never really thought about the fact that where you live impacts your desire to be active. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I move.

  3. I live on the east coast as well and the weather here is pretty unpredictable. I would much rather live in San Diego..but who wouldn’t

  4. I love my neighborhood and I agree that it definitely influences my healthy lifestyle because everything is so accessible, and it’s very easy to run outside. San Diego looks lovely – I’ve never been there but want to visit sometime.

  5. i totally agree. i’m in a new area and struggling to find my groove and get motivated to keep up with my running. the weather is the biggest deterrent for me, but i also struggle with torn up (or missing altogether) sidewalks, no bike paths, and very few parks. where you live has a huge impact on how you do fitness. (it’s possible anywhere…just more convenient in some places…)

  6. So i guess u r not going to advocate for a day trip to Providence and instead vote for Maine? hahah. I am sorry for the troubles, totally stinks. It is hard finding a good place to run and then after a while it is boring. It is even more annoying having to get into the car to then run somewhere. Can you find beauty in the places you are at? Or incorporate other things into your runs that make you happy?

  7. Oh boy do I relate to this. Living in the burbs, the scenery can not be as glamourous as say, running around the Charles is. Yesterday I decided to do something about that and drove to Wellesley College to run around Lake Waban. I took lots of pictures so expect a post soon. I do agree that when you are running in a place that is just begging you to run- by the coast, on a trail etc, its so much easier to run then running around suburbia. But as long as the love for running is still there I get out there. I’ve taken breaks lately and I’m not running as much but thats why I need to work harder by going places that make me happy- the trails in my town or anywhere in Wellesley or the charles river!

  8. Do you ever run on the (East Bay? – the one that goes into Bristol) bike path? It’s kind of a pain to get to from some areas in Prov, but definitely worth it once you’re there…and there are some gorgeous neighborhoods and parks off of it that are kind of a nice change of pace from, well, Blackstone (though Blackstone will always hold a very special place in my heart, it can get a little redundant)…oh I miss Providence! So many delicious places to eat for such a tiny little city.

    • Yes, I usually do my long runs there or on the Blackstone River Bikeway, and it is always a welcome change in scenery. I’ve never tried exploring the neighborhoods around the bike path though – I should try that next time to mix it up a little more! I agree that Blackstone (not to be confused with the bikeway, haha) can definitely get redundant! Although I find myself missing it, now that I don’t get to run on it everyday. Funny how that happens.

  9. I understand where you’re coming from. I definitely don’t run in scenic places and it can become rather boring. Luckily, I like my area most of the time. It’s familiar and I always have plenty of places to run. The thing I complain about most is the weather. That is the biggest detriment to my motivation to workout. Oh…and the local boy I met. Lately I’ve been choosing lazy mornings over long runs. Oops!

  10. Great blog! I have the same issues here. What’s a sidewalk??? I’m working on hubby to relocate to more active community as soon as the empty nest hits next year! It’s so rough to try get motivated when you also have to find a good, safe spot to do things.

    • Thanks Susie!! I have told myself that the next time I move, it’s going to be to a community that is more active – both in terms of culture and in terms of what is available.

  11. I think you’re completely right, Lauren – no, in fact, I KNOW you’re completely right. Besides having a sister who studies urban design and who acquaints me with some of these connections, it is easy to look around and compare different paces you’ve been (although, it never really hit home for me until recently, either :) ). For example, that humongous pile of snow that dumped on us last January?? And the blistering heat we’re getting now? Most people I know are sitting inside, myself included (the joys of CT 😉 ).

    You hit on an important point in your post – the amount of physical activity that a place does also depends on the attitudes of its residents. For example, one of my favorite places on Earth is the area around Boulder, CO. Everyone in CO is a hiker, biker, kayaker, etc. I love it. There, physical activity is a pleasure, not a chore. Oh well, have to make do with what we have, right? 😉

    • I have a new love for urban design. They’ve had it right all along!

      And you bring up a good point with the culture issue. When physical activity is seen as something enjoyable, fun, and just a way of life, people are more likely to incorporate into their everyday.

  12. I think about this all the time! Especially when I travel a lot. It’s fascinating to me how different areas and environments really do shape how active people are (and what they eat). I’m lucky that NYC has tons of accessible places to run, and I love it. LIving here definitely affects my behaviour, but in a good way!

    • I think NYC is awesome for all the options it provides! Definitely a good model for other cities to follow!

  13. Great post! I think this is so true. The county I went to college at and the one I work in now are right next to each other, and were both voted the top two most active counties in my state. There’s always somebody running by or people out walking, which inspires me to get out there and join them as I’m driving home from work. When I go back to my hometown, I’m less motivated to run because I have to make more of an effort to find safe places to run because there are no sidewalks.

    • That makes such a huge difference! Seeing others being active is definitely motivating. Plus, it’s nice to be part of that community of walkers and runners.

  14. I think Atlanta in general has a lot of recreational areas and some areas of the city are really walkable. But where I live, which is a suburb, is not. Although I guess I can walk to CVS and gas station.

  15. Great post Lauren! I feel so lucky that where I live is pretty to run and safe as well.

  16. You are RIGHT ON with this!! In Wuhan where I spent my teen years, everyone walked everywhere! It wasn’t until I moved to the States that I discovered most people here drive. I moved to a small town where there were hardly even sidewalks. Since I was in college I did walk everywhere on campus so that was good. But after I graduated I moved to a city that isn’t exactly the safest. I currently work 2 miles away from my house and I would LOVE to ride my bike to work, but not only are there no sidewalks anywhere near us, it’s incredibly dangerous for me to ride a bike alone here. :( There’s a lot to be said for living in a safe neighborhood with lots of sidewalks! I miss that about Wuhan for sure!

  17. You know, it’s funny–this seems so obvious but I hadn’t even really thought about how it applied to my own life until just now. I like where I live now but I came from a really nice small “downtown” city. I was across the street from the trader joes and could walk to two other grocery stores, two movie theaters, 100s of restaurants, and was around the corner from a paved bike/run trail. The city was really nice and I could run around at all hours of the day/night and feel safe, and all the streets connected so I had SO many runs. I would have loved to live there forever, but when my husband and I decided to buy, there was NO way we could afford to buy in that area. I like where we live now, but it is very very different in the convenience factor. The biggest thing for me is that I’ve noticed there are way less sidewalks and so even just planning out running routes is really really hard. I’ve been living here for over two years now and I really only have two loops (how pathetic is that?) and then sometimes drive to a nearby trail. So sad!

  18. […] – July 7, 2011Posted in: Fitness My awesomesauce friend Lauren just wrote a great post about “The Power of Place” and how your environment affects your overall health. […]

  19. this is absolutely true! I just moved to Georgia and my big military town is beautiful but sidewalks are scarce and chain restaurants are plentiful. and the local folk look the part. I find myself running endless loops in my neighborhood to get decent mileage, and it’s getting very old…very fast. I think I see a future conversion from road to trail runner. not a day goes by that I don’t miss the run-ability of Blackstone Blvd and the East Bay Bike path :(

  20. Great choice of topic! I find this so interesting. You’re right, the choice to exercise is up to the individual, but there is no denying that certain environments make it easier or harder to exercise. Going to school somewhere that forced me to walk everywhere definitely helped me stay active (this was before I was addicted to running/marathons ;)). And I love living in such a running-friendly area. I think that definitely adds to my motivation to get outside and be excited about it. When I lived in Georgia for a summer, it was unbearable hot and the neighborhoods were very contained – you basically could just run within a development complex or you had to go on the highway. That made for very boring running.
    I love that your posts always make me think about things I care about but don’t necessarily think about often. And when you write about these topics your passion really comes through, Lauren!
    Lastly, if you move to San Diego, I want to come :)

  21. Really interesting! I just moved to a new place, so I’m definitely going to see the effect it has on me (I think this place is less-active/active friendly).
    Also, I saw this come into play in a different way at the college I went to. Everyone was super into going to the gym and being healthy, and it kind of rubbed off on others.

  22. I live in Boulder, CO, and EVERYONE here is into healthy living. It’s honestly infectious…the weather is lovely here. 300 days of sunshine a year, low humidity, nearby trails for hiking, rock climbing, fantastic skiing in the winter…there’s something to do all-year round. Not to mention, Boulder is one of the bike-friendliest cities in the nation with an extensive trail system built into the city. It’s kind of amazing. I never want to leave Colorado! :)

  23. California 2012!!

    But really…San Diego looks beautiful and I can only imagine that it’s more incentive to get outside and be active when the weather is awesome and there are places to safely be active! It’s clearly evident that having the ability to be outside and be active really impacts whether people do it or not. When I first moved to NYC, it was in September and people were out marathon training in full force. Once the NYC marathon was over, the running routes were like ghost towns in comparison! Definitely in the cold of winter only a few brave souls were out. While I would like to think that everyone else retreated to heated gyms (only crazy people run outside in 20 degrees, although I don’t think 20 is really all that cold…), they most likely didn’t. If you have access to a park and nice weather to head outside in, your activity of choice is more likely to be something active rather than watching a movie. Not necessarily active for exercise purposes, but active for fun which is active nonetheless!

    I definitely think that NYC is a great place to be active…lots of parks and the running routes are pretty accessible. Not many people have cars, so walking everywhere is definitely promoted! Plus, soooo many people around here are runners/yogis/etc that I almost feel like it’s peer pressure to work out.

    Also, Boulder sounds like a great place to be as well…

  24. Due to the intrinsic need to move and explore new places, I have been grateful in the opportunities to live in multiple places and be active. As of now, yes, San Diego area…making it difficult to sit still. Other places I have lived include bad weather, humidity, four wall gyms, etc. However, they each forced me to focus on a different aspect of activity. It is safe to say that I skimp on strength training and run more than ever out here in SD. However, Florida allowed me to run early mornings…no crowds to fight off and occasionally a rainstorm would force me to the dumb bells, etc. Sometimes, my lack of motivation is cured by taking some time to do other activities, then when I get back to running, it’s a gift for me not a task.
    P.S. Would love to exchange blog info on our blogs to support one another and encourage more readers. Let me know what you think : )

  25. […] connection with my previous post about Lake Waban and Lauren’s post about the power of place, I want to take advantage of this beautiful park so close to my […]

  26. Spot on! I know we’ve commented back and forth a little before about planning and public health and walkability. It’s my job but it’s also how I live my life: proximity to running routes as well as being in a walkable, bikeable, transit-accessible area is probably the most important factor to me in choosing where to live. I just can’t imagine living any other way.

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  28. I stumbled onto this article and this sums up all of my feelings about where we currently live. The lack of good parks and limited areas to run and be active is depressing to us. On the weekends, we will load up the kids and drive 45 minutes to other towns with better amenities. I’m so glad we aren’t the only ones that want to live where others are active.
    For those on the east coast looking for an active area to live-check out Cary, NC. This is where we end up a lot and really would like to move. The bike lanes and greenway system is extensive and the parks and rec is top notch. Other communities should model themselves after Cary.

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