Neighborhood Walkability, Income, & Physical Activity

Numerous studies show that physical inactivity causes a variety of health problems, and older adults are particularly at risk. Literature has recently emerged regarding the relationship between neighborhood environment and physical activity; however, little of this has focused on older adults. A forthcoming article in Social Science & Medicine suggests that neighborhood design has a significant relationship to physical activity and body weight among older adults, specifically in two different US regions.

The study looked at objective measures of neighborhood design in 216 different US Census block groups in the Seattle-King County (Washington) and Baltimore (Maryland) metropolitan areas. The researchers assigned each census tract to one of four categories, based on whether the neighborhood was of high- or low-income, and of high or low walkability—relative to the surrounding area. The designation of “walkability” was based on an index used and validated in several community studies, which incorporates residential density, land use, and features of road intersections.

Researchers recruited a total of 719 older adults from these areas, and each participant completed a physical activity questionnaire; gave a self-report of their height and weight (to calculate BMI) and any mobility impairments; and was equipped with an accelerometer to objectively measure their physical activity. The outcomes evaluated by the questionnaire included weekly minutes spent walking or biking for errands, and weekly minutes spent performing outdoor activities. The accelerometer was used to count weekly minutes spent in moderate or vigorous physical activity.

Neighborhood walkability correlated to physical activity (according to accelerometer measures as well as participant self-report) and BMI. In both high- and low-income areas, high walkability was associated with 22 to 40 more minutes per week of active transport. Further, residents of highly walkable neighborhoods averaged about 33 percent more moderate and vigorous physical activity. Neighborhood income related to activity and BMI, but was not associated with active transport. These findings suggest that designing walkable neighborhoods can encourage healthy, active aging across income levels.


King AC, Sallis JF, Frank LD, et al. Aging in neighborhoods differing in walkability and income: Associations with physical activity and obesity in older adults. Social Science & Medicine. 2011; [E-pub ahead of print].


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