The Power of Place
|July 7, 2011||Posted by Lauren under Public Health Rambles|
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.
Photo 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
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.
And there are many places to walk to – including restaurants, shops, and even a full service grocery store.
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.
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! ) with the “great outdoors” close behind. Have you weighed in yet?