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Linking the Built Environment and Obesity

By Eddy Ball
September 2009

Michael Humble, Ph.D. and Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D.
NIEHS colleagues Humble, center, and Dilworth listened to a presentation by John MacDonald, Ph.D., of Rand Health, on the co-benefits of light rail in Charlotte. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Amy Schultz, Ph.D.
NIEHS grantee Amy Schultz noted that a squad car police presence on greenways in Detroit sent unintended messages to residents - instead of communicating that the greenway was safe, squad cars implied the area may be dangerous. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Amy Freeland, Ph.D.
CDC administrator Amy Freeland, Ph.D., was in attendance to meet investigators who may be interested in seeking CDC funding for subsequent phases of their research. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Madeline Dalton, Ph.D.
In her report, NIEHS grantee Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., noted one study of vending machines in rural New England schools that found six out of ten offered sugar-sweetened beverages and almost one in three featured advertisements for those drinks.
(Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Wenjun Li, Ph.D.
NIEHS-supported research by Principal Investigator Wenjun Li was a health geography survey intended to establish the methodological foundations for in-depth investigations and create a model for use in other urban areas throughout the country. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John DeCastro, Ph.D.
Presenter John DeCastro, Ph.D., recounted the lessons of his NIEHS-funded project on the Texas-Mexico border. His team had to spend time testing and refining personal detection technologies to streamline reports of eating patterns and physical activity. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS hosted the third and final meeting of grantees in the Obesity and Built Environment (OBE) Program, which was funded by NIEHS and partner agencies, August 13-14 in Rodbell Auditorium. Ten of the grantees - six of them funded in whole or part by NIEHS - were on hand to share their challenges, successes and inevitable frustrations during a workshop moderated by NIEHS Health Science Administrator Michael Humble, Ph.D.

Humble opened the meeting with a working definition of the built environment. "Basically, the built environment includes all the building spaces, all the products that are created by people - your homes, the places where you work, the playgrounds in your neighborhoods, transportation."

In their various programs, the grantees strive to better understand how modifiable aspects of the built environment can influence overweight and obesity among residents and how those factors may be manipulated to improve public health. Topics of the grantees' reports ranged from the quality of sidewalks, public transportation and recreational facilities to the prevalence of fast food outlets and liquor stores, perception of neighborhood quality and safety, and fresh vegetable availability.

One team found a significant impact of the new light rail system in Charlotte, N.C. on residents' physical activity and body mass index with potential public health savings, while another equipped young people living in the bi-national twin cities of El Paso, Tex. and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico with personal detection devices to measure food intake and physical activity patterns. A project based at Dartmouth College delineated environmental and family influences on adolescent overweight in rural New England, while a team in Portland, Ore. mapped urban neighborhoods based on land mixed use patterns and examined the influence on the physical activity, overweight and obesity, and blood pressure of elderly residents.

Along with expanding the literature base on OBE and honing research methodology, the research has energized educational and public policy efforts with hard data about the link between where people live and how healthy they are. A field that is still in its early stages, OBE research needed to develop effective evaluation tools, identify data bases, and characterize surveillance and intervention strategies - major goals of projects in the Boston area, Seattle and San Diego.

In Detroit's Lean and Green in Motown project, investigators gained insight into what shapes residents' perception of the safety of greenways, a major outlet for exercise, and staged food displays to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The project also generated compelling photographic and ethnographic evidence of the effects of sidewalk neglect, urban blight and lack of food shopping opportunities.

In Chicago, research into the special needs of people with disabilities, numbering nearly 600,000 city wide, led to city projects to improve sidewalks and access - part of what the study called a Health Empowerment Zone for health promotion activities. In an intervention study, the investigators studied the effects of incentives to improve mobility, food quality and physical activity on obesity.

Energized and led by NIEHS, the OBE program has operated on two-year and four/five-year grants from the NIEHS, NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development (NICHD). OBSSR provided financial support for the meeting enabling investigators and students to travel to and attend the meeting.

With NIEHS support now in its final year, grantees will seek support for their research from other agencies and programs. CDC representative Amy Freeland was present to talk with individual investigators, and NIEHS Health Science Administrator Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., made a presentation on possible opportunities for funding under the new Partnerships in Environmental Public Health Program.

NIEHS grantee Fuzong Li was involved in several studies in Oregon that underscore an important lesson for seniors - where you live may be an important factor in determining how much of you there is. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Rachel Gross
Division of Extramural Research and Training Management Analyst Rachel Gross, right, was one of the NIEHS employees who dropped in to hear the grantees' presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Meeting's Presenters

Funded by NIEHS

  • Amy Schultz, Ph.D., and Jean Wineman, Ph.D., University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, "Lean & Green in Motown: Healthy Environments Partnership"
  • Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., Dartmouth College, "Environmental and Family Influences on Adolescent Overweight and the Problem of Measuring Density in Rural Communities"
  • John DeCastro, Ph.D., Sam Houston State University, "Physical Activity, Nutrition & Built Environment in a Bi-national Border Setting"
  • Wenjun Li, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Medical School Worchester "Obesity and Neighborhood Characteristics"

Co-funded by NIEHS and OBSSR

  • Brian Saelens, Ph.D., Seattle Children's Hospital/University of Washington, "Neighborhood Impact on Kids (NIK) Project"
  • Fuzhong Li, Ph.D., Oregon Research Institute, "Environmental Predictors of Elderly Obesity"

Funded by NICHD

  • Yochai Eisenberg, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago, "Building Health Empowerment Zones for People with Disabilities"

Funded by CDC

  • John MacDonald, Ph.D., RAND Corporation, "Impact of Light Rail on Physical Activity and BMI"

Funded by NCI

  • Janne Boone-Heinonen, Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "Diet, Activity, Obesity & the Built Environment Dynamics"
  • Natalie Colabianchi, Ph.D., University of South Carolina, "Defining the Built Environment"


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