By Kathryn Doyle
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The nicer their neighborhood sidewalks, the more active people tend to be, according to a new study from Detroit.
Previous studies have also found neighborhood characteristics have an impact on healthy behaviors.
"While a number of studies have looked at the presence of sidewalks and their association with physical activity, very few have examined the condition of the sidewalk," said Jamila L. Kwarteng.
She led the new study at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.
Kwarteng and her coauthors surveyed 919 adults in poor and middle-class neighborhoods in Detroit, asking them how much they exercised and how often.
The researchers also walked around the neighborhoods and rated the condition of sidewalks and streets.
According to results published in the Journal of Public Health, people who lived near more uneven or obstructed sidewalks tended to be less active. That was especially the case for younger people.
"We found that better sidewalk condition was associated with increases in physical activity among women and men of varying socioeconomic statuses," Kwarteng told Reuters Health.
Street condition didn't seem to make a difference, however.
It also didn't matter how people thought of their neighborhood - only how the sidewalks actually looked, according to the study.
Sidewalk condition is only one of many factors that may influence physical activity levels, Kwarteng said.
Nir Menachemi said although it is possible sidewalk conditions affect how much time people spend outside being active, that is only one possible interpretation.
"An equally plausible explanation for the results is that individuals preferring to not engage in physical activity, choose to live in neighborhoods that are a bit more run-down," Menachemi told Reuters Health in an email. Presumably that's because it is less expensive to live there, he added.
Menachemi heads the University of Alabama at Birmingham Doctor of Public Health Program and was not involved with the new study.
Sidewalk quality might hint at other factors like landlord complaints to the city and financial resources, which weren't measured here, he said.
Following a neighborhood over time and measuring if activity levels change as sidewalks deteriorate or get better would be a more reliable way of figuring out how much of an effect the sidewalks have.
"This study identifies an association between sidewalk condition and physical activity," Menachemi said. "Further studies should try to explain why this is."
Most prospective homeowners with the freedom to choose between neighborhoods will probably pick the one with better quality infrastructure anyway, Kwarteng said. Poor quality sidewalks become a problem when people with limited resources have little choice where to live.
"Equitable living environments should be available to all residents irrespective of their income," she said.
"Cities should implement policies that keep sidewalks and other characteristics of pedestrian infrastructure in good condition as a step towards facilitating increases in physical activity among their residents."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1cF08y4 Journal of Public Health, online October 24, 2013.