Living near gyms—and away from fast food—tied to smaller waistlines

A new study out of the United Kingdom suggests people truly are products of their environments—at least when it comes to developing obesity.

Compared to people without physical activity facilities nearby, individuals living in areas more densely populated with gyms, swimming pools or playing fields demonstrated a lower prevalence of obesity-related factors, Kate E. Mason, MPH, and colleagues reported in The Lancet Public Health. In addition, the researchers found opposite, although weaker, associations for fast-food restaurants; people living closer to fast-food restaurants had bigger waistlines than those farther away.

“The results of this study provide evidence to support the hypothesis that increasing access to local physical activity facilities and, possibly, reducing access to fast food close to residential areas has the potential to reduce overweight and obesity at the population level,” Mason and co-authors wrote. “Policy makers should consider interventions aimed at modifying residential environments to better facilitate healthy lifestyles, but recognizing that such an approach might be more effective in some groups than in others.”

Mason et al. linked roughly 400,000 measurements of waist circumference, body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage to data about the environment surrounding each participant’s residential address. Participants were between 40 and 70 years old and assessed between 2006 and 2010. More than 65 percent had lived at their current address for more than 10 years.

Individuals with six physical activity facilities within one kilometer of their homes averaged a 1.22-centimeter smaller waist circumference, 0.57 lower BMI and a 0.81 percent lower body fat percentage compared to those without any facilities that close.

Versus people living fewer than 500 meters from a fast-food outlet, participants living at least two kilometers away had a 0.26-centimeter smaller waist circumference.

The authors noted the latter observation could have been weakened by fast-food outlets being grouped with other types of restaurants in the database. In addition, they acknowledged the food options available near individuals’ workplaces and along their commute routes may also have an effect on adiposity, but those areas weren’t studied.

Another important observation was higher-income households had the strongest inverse relationship between markers of obesity and the density of physical activity facilities.

“This finding is unsurprising given many facilities have costs attached to use, and has implications for municipal and private providers of physical activity facilities, who should be encouraged to invest in facilities in or near residential areas, but also to ensure that costs of access are managed to avoid inadvertently widening health inequalities,” Mason and colleagues wrote.