Why your postal code might matter to your health

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, says one way people can become healthier and get back in shape is by rebuilding our neighbourhoods to promote healthier activities such as walking and cycling instead of driving.

Tyson Lazaruk takes the bus to his job in Edmonton every day from his home in the neighbourhood of Terwillegar.

In the evenings, the 37-year-old walks to the grocery store or to the park with his kids, who are three and one. He might get a coffee down the street with his wife, or go for a bike ride on a trail nearby.

“It’s pretty easy. Obviously, weather in Edmonton can be a barrier at times, but at various times in the year we are regularly able to go get something to eat at a restaurant or go get a coffee or whatnot.”

Not all Canadians are so lucky.

Canada’s obesity rate has doubled since the 1970s. What happened?

“Many of us know that we should move more and eat better,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada. “But as you can imagine, the average Canadian wakes up in the morning and moves around, probably in the car. They may sit for quite long hours at work, they go home and they may sit in front of the TV or on their mobile devices. And then they’re exposed to cheap and affordable — but very unhealthy — food.”

This has consequences for our health. At a time when there’s never been more information about how to live a healthy lifestyle, Canadian obesity rates are twice as high as they were in the 1970s and Canadians are also increasingly suffering from chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes.

“So to change from that state to something healthier takes a lot of effort and most people won’t do that or be able to do that by themselves without some support,” said Tam.

So, you change your habitat to better promote health.

“Making the healthier choice the easier choice is the concept.”

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Creating the easier choice is making neighbourhoods that allow people to walk to amenities, like grocery stores and restaurants, said Dr. Karen Lee, associate professor in the division of preventive medicine at the University of Alberta.

Then those amenities need to be connected, through grid-like streets, sidewalks, pathways, bike lanes and public transit. There has to be access to healthy food.

And these things, Lee says, will gradually improve people’s health.

“I think it can help them to become healthy and to achieve their health goals really just as a part of their daily life. They don’t actually have to go out of their way to go to the gym. They don’t actually have to go try to find healthy food because it’s not present in the neighbourhood. They can make healthy choices day to day.”

“We’ve sort of engineered physical activity out of our lives,” said Tam.

“Because we want to get somewhere fast and the communities are built for cars. That’s just how high-income countries have developed. As a result of that, we essentially really walk a lot less than our grandparents’ generation.”

WATCH: The way your neighbourhood is designed can affect your health, without you even realizing it. More walkable neighbourhoods, close to grocery stores and public transit are associated with better health, experts say.

Walk-ability of a neighbourhood directly linked to obesity and diabetes

Re-engineering physical activity back in can be as simple as making stairs visible when you enter a building, and hiding the elevator behind a corner, said Lee.

Research shows that this small change will encourage more people to take the stairs.

“You might ask, what does a little bit of stair use do in terms of life?”

“If adults were to climb just an extra two minutes of stairs per day, they could offset their average annual weight gains.”

Making streets more pedestrian-friendly has also been shown to increase the amount of time that people spend walking, she said. One prominent study has found that more compact and connected road networks are correlated with reduced obesity rates and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced in June that rural residents continue to be more likely to be obese than urban ones, even when controlling for factors like income.

Many cities, including Ottawa and Toronto, have had public health projects dedicated to improving urban design for better health and integrated health considerations into their planning departments.

Why your car-dependent neighbourhood is increasing your risk of obesity

In Newfoundland, said Tam, a provincial program has begun to introduce healthier food options into the ubiquitous convenience stores, and in Mississauga, there are projects to retrofit the areas around malls to create more complete communities with all kinds of amenities.

“Where we live really matters to our health,” she said. “As much as access to health care or your genetic makeup is potentially important, the built environment can have a massive impact.”

“As one of my colleagues would say, your postal code may be as important as your genetic code.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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