A new study suggests that zip codes are as important as genetic code in childhood obesity.

“Walkability” and “food deserts” aren’t just urbanism buzzwords. They’re crucial factors in childhood obesity.

That’s according to a new study from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute that looked at GIS data from neighborhoods in San Diego and Seattle (via Walkonomics). The headline of their press release? "Zip Code as Important as Genetic Code in Childhood Obesity."

The study, one of the largest of its kind to date, looked at neighborhood walkability, access to parks and other recreational facilities, supermarket availability, and concentration of fast food restaurants.

Kids that lived in neighborhoods that were poorer in physical activity and nutrition environment had the highest rates of obesity – almost 16 percent – in the study. This figure is similar to the national average. On the flip side, only eight percent of children were obese in neighborhoods where physical activity and nutrition environments were positive.

“People think of childhood obesity and immediately think about an individual’s physical activity and nutrition behaviors, but they do not necessarily equate obesity with where people live,” said Dr. [Brian] Saelens, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. “Everyone from parents to policymakers should pay more attention to zip codes because they could have a big impact on weight.”

The study found that children who lived in the healthier neighborhoods had a 59 percent lower chance of being obese. And childhood obesity is linked to myriad health complications in later life, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

The new study mirrors other research about what are known as “obesogenic environments” – places that can make you fat. North America is full of them.

What’s sad is that children naturally want to walk and explore, and well-designed urban environments are inherently capable of providing tons of healthy stuff for kids to do. Too often we think in terms of programmed activities and organized sports as the only way for kids to get up and moving. But as Chris Berthelsen wrote in “Seven Ideas from Tokyo for Child-Friendly Spaces” on This Big City last week, children can create their own entertainment – if they are given a safe place to do so:

If we want to begin to understand how children live in their environment, and what they do (and can do) we must (at least sometimes) stop giving them things and instead give them the opportunity to show us the spaces in which they move around….

Rather than designing things and places for play we might begin to accept the diverse ways that children interpret their world.

The evidence is piling up that walkable communities mean happier and healthier people. Are policymakers listening?

Photo credit: Marta Tobolova/Shutterstock

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