Effect of Urban Form on Exercise and BMI in Black Women

It is increasingly recognized that sedentariness and obesity are not solely individual problems but are responses to an environment that makes it difficult to be active and maintain a healthy weight. In this study, we used data from the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS) to address the hypothesis that the neighborhood “pedestrian environment” (urban form, comprising such factors as street layout and presence of sidewalks) influences levels of physical activity and weight, independent of individual level factors and neighborhood socioeconomic status. BWHS participants fill out questionnaires every two years and report their weight, the number of hours per week they spend walking, engaging in vigorous activities, and engaging in sedentary activities. The study focused on participants in three cities (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). An expert in transportation and urban planning compiled data about the pedestrian environment at the neighborhood scale for the three cities, including nature and density of land use, proximity to parks, presence of sidewalks, speed and volume of traffic, and street structure. These data were linked to the geocoded residential addresses of BWHS participants. Using multi-level longitudinal regression techniques, we found that women who live in more dense, urban neighborhoods reported higher levels of utilitarian walking (i.e., walking to a destination) than did women in less dense neighborhoods. Housing density had the strongest relationship with utilitarian walking, followed by the availability of public transit. In addition, women in more dense neighborhoods gained less weight and were less likely to become obese over 6 years of follow-up than did women in less dense neighborhoods. Our prospective results agree with results from cross-sectional studies and suggest that policies that encourage more dense and urban residential development may have a positive role to play in addressing the obesity epidemic.


Patricia Coogan, Sc.D., Principal Investigator
Slone Epidemiology Center

Lynn Rosenberg, Sc.D., Co-Investigator
Slone Epidemiology Center

Laura F. White, Ph.D., Co-Investigator
Department of Biostatistics
Boston University School of Public Health

Study Staff:

Stephen Evens, Data Analyst

Source of Funding:

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Study Period:

2006 to 2011