Neighborhood Walkability, Income and Physical Activity

Low physical activity is a risk factor for a variety of functional impairments and health problems. Older adults are at particular risk for physical inactivity and subsequent health problems. There is an emerging literature on the relationship between neighborhood environment and physical activity, but little of this has focused on older adults. A forthcoming article shows that neighborhood design has a significant relationship with physical activity and body weight among older adults in two different regions in the US.

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.

The researchers recruited a total of 719 older adults from these areas. 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 also 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 had a significant relationship with 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% 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, A.C., Sallis, J.F., Frank, L.D., Saelens, B.E., Cain, K., Conway, T.L., Chapman, J.E., Ahn, D.K., and Kerr, J. (2011). “Aging in neighborhoods differing in walkability and income: Associations with physical activity and obesity in older adults.” Social Science & Medicine (2011), epub ahead of print.

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