Geography and obesity: what’s the connection?

How do the characteristics of our neighbourhood influence our health? Dr Matthew Hobbs, a researcher at UC's GeoHealth Lab, explores some fascinating links between where we live and the risk of obesity.

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Does where you live affect your health?

While you might not know it, geography and health are closely linked! Where you are born, live, work or even go to school, directly influence your health through factors like the air you breathe or the health services you have access to in your neighbourhood.

At the GeoHealth Laboratory, our research attempts to work out how various characteristics of local neighbourhoods influence health outcomes and health-related behaviours, to support the work of policymakers in the New Zealand Ministry of Health. Of interest to policymakers currently, is how our neighbourhoods may shape health outcomes like obesity.

Policy has focused towards making healthy environments. Pinning down exactly how your home neighbourhood influences obesity, however, is quite difficult: evidence is quite inconsistent as to what the effect is, and sometimes it differs depending on who you are.

A recent study that I led, investigated what environmental factors may influence obesity in women of childbearing age. Obesity in women of childbearing age is worrying for a variety of reasons, including the increased risk of offspring obesity.  In the study, I investigated if individual-level factors like age or ethnicity increased the risk of obesity.

The study also looked at places around the home like public greenspaces or food outlets. Many factors were related to obesity in this population group, but from an environmental perspective, the results showed that an increased availability of public greenspace was related to decreased obesity risk. Increased availability of private greenspace, however, was related to increased obesity risk—but only in main urban areas. This extends the current understanding of geography’s connection to obesity, by showing that greenspace may be related to health but only in certain areas. The results suggest that future research and policy may wish to consider how the benefits of environmental-level interventions can be maximised for those populations or areas most at risk of obesity.

Dr Matthew Hobbs is a postdoctoral researcher in the GeoHealth Laboratory at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His aim is to provide policymakers with high-quality evidence, to plan healthier places while considering health inequity.