A key concept explored in the lecture on The Broader Social Context of Health and Behavior is the idea that the physical environment can have an impact on human health. As an element of the social ecological model, the physical environment, and the extent to which it is “built” rather than “natural”, can have an impact on health issues such as obesity and stress. This paper will examine a popular media article from the web-site Health Day (Woolston, 2016), with regard to the concept of the effect of the physical environment on health. In particular, it will examine the concept of how the physical environment can contribute to obesity.
In the popular media article “A Tale of a Few Cities: How Sprawl Affects Your Waistline”, Chris Woolston examines the impact of the physical sub-urban environment on health, and specifically on the issue of obesity. The article cites research which suggests that there is a direct connection between the physical environment of sprawling city suburbs, and the tendency to increased obesity. It also examines the reasons behind this connection, providing research and expert opinion suggesting that the car-centric design of most suburbs actively discourage physical activity in the form of walking or cycling. The article goes on to suggest that significant improvements in health could be achieved by changes to the planning and design of suburbs, stating that “many experts now believe that urban planning may play an important role in the country’s battle against obesity” (Woolston, 2016, n.p.). Finally, the article concludes by offering the standard health advice: get more physical exercise.

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While this article raises some significant issues with regard to the effect of the urban environment on public health and obesity, it does not present the whole picture. For example, Lopez and Hynes 2006 study indicates that “compared to suburban residents, inner city populations have higher rates of obesity and inactivity despite living in neighborhoods that are dense, have excellent street connectivity and who’s streets are almost universally lined with sidewalks” (Lopez and Hynes, 2006, p. 25). What this suggests is that the impact of the physical environment is not isolated to specific issues such as design or density, but instead is a result of the many interlinking environmental factors from the social ecological model working together. A simplistic example of this might be the case of an older and well-paid person living in the city compared to a younger, socially-disadvantaged person: while the first individual might be inclined to rely on public transport to travel to work, the second individual might choose, through economic necessity, to walk several blocks to work. While both individuals are living in the same physical environment, the impact of that environment on them is further tempered by individual factors. In this example it is the interplay between the community and individual levels of the social ecological model that provide the most accurate assessment of impact on obesity.

Regardless of the fact that the impact of social factors on health cannot be simplified to isolated issues, however, research does nevertheless suggest that addressing the different levels of the social ecological model separately – such as making changes to the physical environment – can have a positive impact. Heath et al, for example, have published research indicating that policy changes and large-scale investment in areas such as urban transportation infrastructure, and urban design more generally, can have a significant impact on public health (Health et al, 2006). While it is necessary to view the model as a whole to form an accurate assessment of health issues, therefore, it is possible to formulate solutions based on only a part of the model at a time.

In examining this public media article, it is clear that there is a tendency within society to perceive and deal with health issues from a limited perspective with regard to the social ecological model. However, the social ecological model can, if used effectively, suggest solutions to problems on a more wide-reaching scale.

  • Heath, G. W., Brownson, R. C., Kruger, J. M. R., Powell, K. E., and Ramsey, L. T. (2006). “The Effectiveness of Urban Design and Land Use and Transport Policies and Practices to Increase Physical Activity: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 3, S55-S76.
  • Lopez, R. P. and Hynes, H. P. (2006). “Obesity, Physical Activity, and the Urban Environment: Public Health Research Needs.” Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 5 (1). p. 25.
  • Woolston, C. (2016, January 20). “A Tale of a Few Cities: How Sprawl Affects Your Waistline.” Health Day. Retrieved from: https://consumer.healthday.com/