How Neighborhoods Can Wreck Your Waistline
You might blame your weight gain on your lack of motivation, wavering willpower, and a few too many bad food decisions. Don't get us wrong; those things matter. But there's another culprit you should also consider: your neighborhood. Whether you make your home in the suburbs, a city, or a rural area, where you live can make it easier—or much harder—to put your weight loss goals into action.
Maybe a lack of sidewalks and bike paths leaves you scratching your head over where to work out. Perhaps your area is short on grocery stores but packed with fast-food chains, or your neighbor's car alarm keeps you up all night, derailing your early-morning jog. Tally up a few of these instances and you could have a hometown problem that's interfering with even the best weight loss intentions.
"In my experience it makes a huge difference where you live. Everyone can find a way to overcome their circumstances, but people who live in the suburbs where there aren’t sidewalks and are dependent on their cars have a very difficult time getting exercise in. And in my practice, I find that they are more likely to be overweight," said Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations.
Here are the biggest neighborhood pitfalls that contribute to belly bulge—and how, short of moving homes, you can make fixes to start dropping pounds again.
Problem: No Sidewalks
Having to drive somewhere in order to walk safely adds a level of difficulty that even the most motivated exercisers can find derailing. "Even if my clients are very conscientious, they find it very difficult to get all of the recommended activity in for the day when they have to rely on a car to get everywhere," said Tallmadge. "Hitting 10,000 steps in a gym in one fell swoop is very challenging. And if you don't live in a situation where walking is easy, then your good intentions don’t last."
People who live further away from parks and green spaces are more likely to be heavy, according to a Danish study published last year. The self-reported study found that people living more than half a mile from green spaces had higher odds of being obese than those living less than a quarter of a mile.
How To Fix It: If you want to get some fresh air, run or walk around a local school track or do laps around the school's perimeter. Find a park and work in a few miles any way you can there, said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, author of Run Your Butt Off (Rodale). Or, find a way to get exercise near where you work if that's a safer area.
Problem: Fast Food Restaurants Are Everywhere
You're on your way to the grocery store or farmer's market, knowing you'll pass five fast food restaurants before you even get there. Suddenly, steering into a drive-thru seems like a much better idea—but rely too often on that Number One with fries, and your health will suffer. A greater availability of fast food outlets within a 1.5-mile radius of home was linked to higher BMI and obesity rates, according to new research published in the journal Obesity. The study of 60,775 postmenopausal women who took part in the Women's Health Initiative also discovered that women who lived in areas with the greatest availability of grocery stores and supermarkets had lower BMIs, lower rates of obesity, and lower rates of diastolic blood pressure than women who lived in areas with the least accessibility to fresh food.
How To Fix It: While you may not be able to stop a fast food restaurant from opening, and you can try to take the long way home to avoid temptation, rest assured that the occasional (and we do mean occasional) fast food fix won't completely undo your healthy eating plan. "Even if you do eat at a fast food restaurant, there are a lot of things you can do to help out your choices. It's the add-ons with the entrees that are often the problem," said Bonci. She recommended avoiding the sugary sodas, desserts like apple pies and fried sides. Comparison-shop fast-food restaurant menus like you do with food labels to find the healthiest options. Then make a list of the "safe" items at each place you like to go to, and tell yourself you'll choose from among those each time you walk through the door.
Problem: Fresh Produce Is Hard To Find
Maybe your closest grocery store only stocks a handful of fresh produce items, and you're bored with making salads containing the same four ingredients. Or maybe what's on the shelves is always bruised and overripe—and there's no way you can take an extra hour in the middle of the week to drive to a better market. Either way, a lack of quality fruits and veggies is enough to wilt anyone's healthy intentions.
How To Fix It: If you think your local grocer isn't carrying enough variety of fresh produce or you want more organic options, have a conversation with the manager . Most likely, they'll want to hear your input in order to keep your business. Another way to get proactive: Participate in a community garden in your neighborhood, or look into starting one. "Community gardens are great because you're getting physical activity while you garden and you're planting something that can bring local produce to everyone's plates for a very low price point,” said Bonci. You can also explore community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs that partner with local organic farmers in your area. Or, save money on organic food by buying it in bulk from a place like Costco, Sam's Club, or even a Walmart and dividing it up between neighbors.
Problem: No Bike Paths
Metro areas where greater numbers of people walk and bike to work tend to be healthier than car commuting towns, according to research conducted by The Atlantic and the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. Conversely, having more people who drive to work alone was related to a less healthy population. Biking is fantastic for your health and the environment—but not if you're risking life and limb every time you head out for a ride. If your area lacks bike lanes or is crisscrossed with dangerous traffic patterns, sharing the road with cars can be intimidating, to say the least.
How to fix it: If you plan to ride your bike in the street, assess how safe you think it is and understand that not all drivers are cyclist-savvy. Always ride with a helmet and add on reflectors and a light to make yourself more visible to drivers.
You may want to ride on the sidewalks if there are no laws against it in your town, but remember you'll have to be mindful of pedestrians and be prepared to start and stop a lot if there's foot traffic. You could ride your bike to work or take it in your car to your office and cycle around that neighborhood if it's a safer area than where you live. And when it's too hot or rainy to ride, you can mount your bike to an indoor trainer and get your ride in that way.
Problem: You're Living In Allergy Central
If your neighborhood is a haven of trees and grassy lawns, you probably feel lucky—that is, until allergy season rolls around. And thanks to an unseasonably warm winter in many areas of the country, the 40 million Americans with seasonal allergies had to face their symptoms earlier and longer than usual. Needless to say, when your eyes are watering, your nose is stuffy, and your head is foggy, you're not going to want to embark on a run outside that will only exacerbate your symptoms.
How To Fix It: It's okay to avoid outdoor exercise on days when the pollen count is very high. Instead, make the most of your workout DVD collection, go for a swim at an indoor pool, or stroll the local mall. Talk to your doctor about medicines that may help you and remember to take them before you exercise outside to ease allergy symptoms. If you're going to take your workout outdoors, plan to do it in the afternoon since pollen is released early in the morning, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
If you dabble in different types of exercise, stick with the one least likely to expose you to allergens during allergy season. Opt for tennis on a cement court rather than, say, golf, suggested Dr. Malcolm N. Blumenthal, director of the Asthma and Allergy Program at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
Problem: Your City Never Sleeps (and Neither Do You)
Whether you live near a train station or airport, next to a barking dog, or neighbors who seem to throw a party whenever you're ready to hit the hay, noise pollution can wreak serious havoc on your sleep—which in turn may lead to weight gain. Besides derailing the expert-recommended seven to eight hours of sleep, the daily drone of a loud town can also boost your blood pressure and elevate your heart rate. While many studies have been done on environmental noise levels and their effect on sleep, most indicate intrusive sounds have some effect on sleep although the long-term health effects aren't known.
How to Fix It: Surprisingly, it's not the sound that's keeping you awake. "It's the inconsistency of sound or silence that's disruptive," said Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. So if that dog barked all day long every day, you'd eventually get used to it and it wouldn't necessarily disrupt your sleep. Create white noise by turning on a nearby ceiling or exhaust fan. "This blocks out disruptive sounds and provides just enough noise for those who can't stand total silence," Roth says. A white-noise machine will do the trick, too—the devices help patients sleep in the busy, active intensive care units of hospitals, according to a report in Sleep Medicine.