Obesity research may be flawed by superficial built environment and walkability variables

By Ben Alonzo 0 Comments
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Why are so many people in America fat? This is a hot research topic for environmental and health science researchers. The research often looks at whether the area you live in makes it easy to walk from one place to another, without any cars in the area, and in safe neighborhoods. On a surface level, walkability and neighborhood safety seem logical as factors feed into the national obesity crisis. If we look deeper, these factors don’t reliably explain the behavior of obese people, don’t account for diet, or tangible exercise activity. We might be wasting a lot of time by preforming research on superficial variables.

America’s Fat Epidemic

Most American adults are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of 2014, at least 70% of US adults are overweight. About 40% are obese, which is the worst kind of overweight. The data trend seems to be overall increasing. Fat people are everywhere, scientists say. There’s nothing healthy about being overweight, according to modern science. Obesity causes numerous social, health, mental, and financial problems, including early death. This is very concerning for scientists, but the search for what drives this trend is complicated.

Built Environment

Since the Industrial Revolution, Americans have used advanced technology to rapidly construct sprawling cities. Some researchers say that the way cities are built is related to the increased amount of obese people, referring to this as built environment studies. The built environment can include your neighborhood, restaurants, walking distance construction, how easy it is to walk in your neighborhood, buildings, area safety, sidewalks, and distance to physical fitness areas (a park, gym, etc.). These sound like logical things that could encourage exercise, but there’s too much emphasis on their role in obesity prevention and intervention.

For example, many research reports suggest that if a park is too far away, this means a person will not take the effort to walk to it, which means less exercise. After all, a park is the only place a person can exercise, right? Many media outlets run these sensational stories with the jump-to-conclusion idea that simply building more parks that are closer to your front door is the answer to obesity. This is an incredibly ignorant and unscientific conclusion.

There’s an assumption that all people would walk around the park to get exercise, if one existed. Where is the exercise in driving to the park, which is what many people do? Where’s the exercise that comes from sitting on a park bench?

For an obese person, walking slowly for 10 minutes a day will likely have no significant health impact, without first changing diet habits and consistent significant exercise routines that go beyond simply walking for a few seconds a day. Without combined proper diet, exercise alone will not combat obesity. In fact, rigorous exercise might be potentially dangerous for very overweight individuals. The distance to a park isn’t exactly a good indicator of local obesity rates.

Safety is also another variable that researchers study. The idea is that obesity is increased because people living in unsafe neighborhoods are too scared to go outside. People will sit around inside and have nothing else to do but eat junk food and sleep, if the area is unsafe. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s exactly what is suggested by the idea. The outcome is that poor neighborhoods are associated with higher crime, which means more unsafe neighborhoods, leading to people too afraid to go outside. Without addressing the safety issue, there’s no point in further research, according to the very research that suggests unsafe neighborhoods as a driver of obesity. You can clearly see that the variables being studied are very superficial and subjective, which means we get superficial and subjective results in our findings.

Researchers have often looked at many studies together to see what was in common or what can be done about obesity. For example, Feng et al. (2010) summarized what inconsistent, superficial research accomplishes, stating “the great heterogeneity across studies limits what can be learned from this body of evidence.” There’s so many variables being looked at that it’s hard to really learn anything from it.

Walkability

Is your city a walkable city? Walkability means that your city is built to cater to walking individuals, not cars or trucks. The ideal walkable city won’t have any cars or trucks in it. Scientifically, this can be accomplished and it would have positive results: less pollution, less noise, less accidents/fatalities, no car payment/insurance bills, no more worrying about gas prices, more people exercising, everything you need within walking distance, and encourages people to interact more than they would otherwise. Walkable cities are a good idea for sustainable living and to address a changing global climate.

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Unfortunately, much of our largest cities were already built without modern environmental science, sustainability, or walkability in mind. This means that a truly walkable city is hard to find. Some cities are trying to redesign or shift to more sustainable transportation, but this is far from a true walkable city. If we can’t tear down and rebuild, the next best thing is integration. Integration is a term used to describe an already existing built environment (city) where walkable aspects are added into it. We can’t tear down the whole city and rebuilt it, we just try to construct more walking paths, green areas, and open spaces into the area.

Walkability is definitely something that would encourage more physical activity, but this is a long-term process and not an instant fix to our obesity crisis. After all, how many days, weeks, months, and years does it take for someone to lose a significant amount of weight and return to healthy biomarkers? If a lazy person choose to avoid consistent, significant physical exercise and proper diet habits, what difference would a park, grocery store, or new gym make? We have to be careful in our research efforts, especially when looking at the cause and effect relationship. Many variables are statistically associated with higher rates of obesity, but this doesn’t necessarily mean correlation equals cause. We shouldn’t make any investments or drastic decisions based on superficial research.

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Personal Responsibility

America also has a culture of passing blame and double standards. There must be a level of personal and corporate responsibility for the obesity epidemic. Companies have a responsibility to ethically produce advertisements and inform consumers about the health consequences of using their products. The individual has a responsibility to make informed decisions about what they eat and drink. No company is forcing people to eat or drink their product, it’s always a personal decision. However, billions are spent on advertisements to pressure people into eating and drinking unhealthy products.

Bad personal decisions and unethical advertisements aren’t a new thing in America. The Washington Post once reported that junk food advertisers spent $1.6 billion on advertisements that targeted children. Companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, and Burger King spend a lot of money on advertising their products. Scientifically, many of the products they sell aren’t exactly the healthiest option for a nation of obese people. Focusing on children also meant that getting them hooked on a product could lead to a habit of weight gain and poor decisions. Could this be the real reason for today’s obesity epidemic?

It looks like advertising and personal decisions almost fully explain the current obesity trend. Why are we looking at other variables to explain something that might be much simpler than we’re make it out to be? We must keep in mind that becoming obese doesn’t happen overnight. It took several decades of advertisements and poor personal decisions to get to this point.

Rather than consider that advertisements, low cost, convenience, and poor personal decisions are the root cause of obesity, many scientists look at where people buy their food and drinks.

Researchers often look at how many grocery stores and fast food places are in your area, if they are affordable, and whether they sell primarily healthy or junk food at them. The superficial conclusion is that if you have an expensive store close to you, there will be more fat people because they can’t afford it. Similarly, if you have a fast food place close to your neighborhood, then you must have more fat people because of the cheap junk food being so close. If you don’t look deeper or fully understand the context, it sure looks like a slam dunk to outlaw all fast food places. Unfortunately, there are people capitalizing off of superficial pseudoscientific obesity research.

The decision to purchase healthy food isn’t necessarily tied to whether you’re right or not, your skin color, or where you live. The typical American city has ample food and drink resources, even in poor areas. Massive amounts of calorie intake will result in obesity. Exercise is only part of the story, and almost useless when done in minor amounts, if a person continues to eat unhealthy. Having more grocery stores, parks, or walking paths isn’t going to change our current obesity problem. There still remains a level personal responsibility to eat and drink healthy versus unhealthy products, regardless of your socioeconomic status.

Having a safe neighborhood and a place to exercise is always a good thing, but it will not change the fact that people have an individual responsibility to own their decisions to eat and drink unhealthy things. If we continue chasing superficial variables, we might find ourselves spending billions in construction and failed programs, while the obesity trend continues to increase because we’re avoiding the bigger picture and obvious root causes.
City administrators, government, health professionals, and educators should be using sound science to discuss and address obesity in America, not knee-jerk reactions and superficial ideologies.

Mindset

The key to fighting obesity starts with basic health education. More people need to first be educated with basic science and the scientific method. This will help them make informed decisions. Informed decisions will help you identify behavior that leads to obesity, understand how metabolism works, how your body responds to exercise, calorie intake, health eating and drinking choices, and your physical fitness resources. Knowledge really is power and it must be the starting point for both science researchers and the obese populations they seek to help.

Our mindset must focus on practicing sound science as researchers as well as individual citizens. You can’t practice sound science or make informed decisions without first having a basic science education. Science can help us recognize fact, fiction, the superficial and deeper contexts, and live healthier lives.

bio
Author: Ben Alonzo is a scientist, professor, tech expert, and director of ULTRATechLife.com. He’s currently CEO of the tech firm Emera Media. He holds a M.S. in Geoscience, M.S. in Health, and a B.S. in Geoscience. Alonzo is a highly-rated professor that teaches numerous courses at multiple colleges, including earth science, meteorology, environmental science, geology, oceanography, and public health. His diverse background also spans network and computer engineering, healthcare, telecommunications, weather forecasting, consumer electronics, and web development. He holds a variety of professional credentials, ranging from A+ information technology to healthcare provider and emergency medical technician certifications. He’s been writing about science and tech for over 10 years.
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