People who live close to gyms, pools and playing fields weigh less and have smaller waistlines than their counterparts residing farther away from exercise facilities, a UK study suggests.
Living far away from fast food outlets also appeared to help people maintain a lower weight and trimmer waist, although this connection wasn't as strong as the proximity of gyms, researchers report in the Lancet Public Health.
"It is likely that communities without the neighborhood resources needed to encourage a healthy lifestyle put their residents at a higher risk of obesity," said senior study author Steven Cummins of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
"This could be improved by restricting the number of new fast food outlets in a neighborhood and how close they can be to people's homes, incentivizing operators of physical activity facilities to open in residential areas with few facilities, or funding local authorities to provide such facilities," Cummins said by email.
Globally, more than 1.9 billion adults are overweight or obese, according to the World Health Organization. The condition contributes to a variety of common medical problems including heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
For the study, researchers examined data on weight, waist measurements and body fat for more than 400,000 men and women ranging in age from 40 to 70.
The study used data collected between 2006 and 2010 that included demographic characteristics like household income, as well as what types of eating and exercising options were available near people's home addresses.
To determine exercise opportunities, researchers looked for indoor and outdoor facilities for sports and leisure activities such as gyms, swimming pools and playing fields. They didn't consider public parks or cycling and walking paths.
On average, people had just one exercise facility within 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) of home. And almost one-third of participants had no options this close to where they lived, the study found.
People typically had to travel just 1.1 kilometers (0.68 miles) to reach a fast food outlet. Nearly one in five people had a fast food restaurant within a half-kilometer (0.31 miles) of home.
Better access to exercise options translated into a healthier weight.
Compared to people who had no facilities near home, people who had at least six places to work out weighed less, had a 1.22 centimeter (0.47 inch) slimmer waistline, and had a body fat percentage that was 0.81 percent lower on average.
At the same time, people who lived at least 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) from a fast food outlet had a waistline 0.26 centimeters (0.10 inches) smaller than individuals who lived less than a half-kilometer away, the study also found.
One limitation of the study is that not all fast food restaurants may have been included in the database, the authors note. The study also didn't account for the proximity of healthy dining establishments near home, or the type of food and workout options close to where people worked.
The study was not a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how neighborhood characteristics like the availability of gyms or greasy spoons might impact obesity rates.
It's hard to rule out the possibility that healthier people may choose to live near the amenities they need to stay healthy, said Pablo Monsivais, author of an accompanying editorial and a nutrition and exercise researcher at Washington State University in Spokane.
But the study still suggests that where we live matters, Monsivais said by email.
"Individually, each of us makes choices that affect whether we maintain a healthy weight or put on pounds, but these choices are shaped by the environments we inhabit," Monsivais added. "This study looked at just a few features of the environment, but research shows that things like green space, walkability, noise, air quality and the availability of healthy food choices all seem to matter for our health and body weight."