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Study finds Atlanta urbanites more active

Thursday, February 10, 2005
ATLANTA -- Urban dwellers are more physically active than their suburban counterparts, mainly because many of their daily chores - such as going to the grocery store, dropping of dry cleaning or dining - involve walking to places closest to them, researchers have found.

Researchers measured the physical activity of 357 adults in 13 metro Atlanta counties and found those who lived in neighborhoods with nearby shops and services were 2.4 times more likely than suburbanites to meet government recommendations of 30 or more minutes of physical activity.

Metro Atlanta residents in dense residential areas with many connected streets and a mixture of shops were "more likely to meet the Surgeon General's recommendations" on physical activity than those outside Atlanta's Interstate 285 perimeter, said Larry Frank, a former Georgia Institute of Technology researcher who now is an associate professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia.

Although there have been many studies on physical activity and places where people live in recent years, this is the first study that uses objective measurements of both physical activity and neighborhoods, said Reid Ewing, a professor at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the research, which was published in this month's American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"This is an important study - several other researchers will have to do similar studies to see if this is going to hold up," Ewing said. "It's probably five years before we can say the built environment affects physical activity and health with certainty but this is a long-term effort."

In the study, the volunteers wore accelerometers - $500 versions of pedometers that measure physical activity - for two days each between 2001 and 2002. They used census data, city street files and land use databanks to determine the characteristics of neighborhood in 13 metro Atlanta counties.

The most physically active areas included Atlanta's Virginia-Highland, Midtown and Inman Park neighborhoods, the city of Decatur, Ga., and downtown Marietta, Ga. In those areas, up to 38 percent of participants were physically active 30 minutes each day.

In contrast, metro Atlanta's suburban areas were the worst, with only 18 percent of participants there performing the government's physical activity quota. That's likely because the suburban residents must rely on cars to get from place to place and and it's not easy to walk to nearby shops and services, Frank said.

Although researchers said the study's findings can be generalized to other regions that heavily use automobiles, Ewing said other cities with a wider range mix of urban and suburban development might have different results.

"Atlanta is kind of sprawling at its absolute best," Ewing said. "It needs to be validated in different metropolitan areas. But the study is significant in doing something better than anyone's done before."