Obesity Presumption #6: Built Environment Promotes Obesity

Continuing in the discussion of obesity myths, presumptions and facts published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Presumption #6 states that:

“The built environment, in terms of sidewalk and park availability, influences obesity.”

This idea, is based on the very “common-sense” notion that neighborhood-environment features may promote or inhibit physical activity, thereby affecting obesity rates.

However, as the authors point out, virtually every study showing any relationship between built environments (and not all have) are observational in nature – and correlation does not prove causation. Indeed, there is certainly no dearth of confounders regarding those who chose to live where, which could easily account for any positive findings (or lack thereof).

Thus, although this is a most attractive and logical appearing hypothesis, the data to support it is far less than the researchers (and policy makers) working in this area would have us believe.

This is not to say that walkable neighbourhoods, children playgrounds, promotion of bicycle paths, parks, mixed land use, etc. would not have countless important benefits both for the kids and adults living in these spaces.

In fact, I stand firm in support of building “healthy” communities, which can only flourish in environments built for that purpose.

On the other hand, I would neither expect obesity rates to go up or down in such an environment – obesity is far too complex a problem to expect any major impact from such a measure.

Edmonton, AB