Improving health, one step at a time

Posted on Thursday, November 26, 2015

Canadians need to take advantage of ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ say MUHC researchers.

By MUHC Public Relations

It may be surprising, but Canadians who live in densely-populated areas where stores, banks, schools and other services are close by do not walk as much as they should. These are the findings of new research, published in the current issue of BMJ Open,by a team at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC). This cross-sectional analysis of a large sample of Canadians was unique in combining objective measures of physical activity with digital map based measures of walkable neighbourhoods.

“We have walkable neighbourhoods in many towns and cities in Canada, but they have to actually be used to help us reduce our risks of developing chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and its associated complications,” says study senior author, Dr. Kaberi Dasgupta, MUHC internal medicine physician and an associate professor of medicine. “It is a little bit like having a treadmill in our basement. The treadmill is a great tool for keeping fit, as long as it is used.”


Samantha Hajna, the study’s first author, is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health.

The research was based on data from the Canada Health Measures Survey in which nearly 3,000 adults from 15 sites across Canada answered a questionnaire about their daily utilitarian walking (i.e. walking with a purpose, such as to the bus stop or the grocery store) and wore accelerometers that measured their number of daily steps. The researchers used latitude and longitude information combined with digital maps to calculate how walkable participants’ neighbourhoods were.

“Daily step counts include both utilitarian and recreational walking and are a good indicator of total physical activity,” explains study first author, Samantha Hajna, who is a PhD candidate in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. “Contrary to our expectations, our study showed that although people living in more walkable neighbourhoods report more utilitarian walking, they are not more active overall compared to people living in less walkable neighbourhoods. Their total number of daily steps remains below the recommended 10,000 steps a day. This is different from studies in Belgium, Czech Republic or Japan, where living in more walkable neighbourhoods is associated with walking more overall.”

According to Dr. Dasgupta, the walkability of our environment should be that extra opportunity for integrating activity into our day. “If we live in a walkable neighbourhood we should take advantage of it, because it can contribute to our total physical activity.”

Read the study online.

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One Response to Improving health, one step at a time

  1. Adam Hortop says:

    Three thoughts about the observed difference between Canada and the other three countries:
    First, how “drive-able and park-able” are the walkable neighbourhoods. Giving people a walkable neighbourhood may be less important than giving them a neighbourhood, where they have a miserable time driving or parking a car. Most European cities are fairly miserable to drive in, I can’t imagine Japan has many “open roads”, at least not in neighbourhoods. Conversely, Canadian urbanism rarely allows motor vehicles to sink very far from top priority.
    Second, how refined is the walkability metric. Things may be close together, but if one has to skirt an arterial road on a narrow sidewalk, or cross 6 lane intersections to get groceries then the physical distance can be much less consequential than the feeling of walking.
    Third, public transit is key to make walking the default start and conclusion of any journey. Without transit, most serial errands will require a vehicle.
    I lived in four apartments in Berlin over four years and had 3 or 4 grocery stores and 2-5 subway stations within walking distance of each one. There is nothing walkable in Canada like what I had there. Very difficult to compare peoples behaviour in places that are “similar” based on a crudely defined metric, but I applaud you for trying. We need to figure out a better formula for urbanism in this country.

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