Are You Living In a Toxic Environment

by DavalosMcCormack on June 18, 2009

I used to think that being healthy, losing weight, sticking with an exercise program was just a matter of will power. If you were fat or slovenly or had bad habits it was just because you lacked the fortitude to change your lifestyle and take care of yourself.

Then I grew up and discovered that the world is really a lot more complicated than I realized. You may have good intentions but if you don’t have the environment to help you act on those intentions, it can be very difficult to lead a healthy life, or make healthy changes.

I was reminded of that quite powerfully the other day when I came across a study that showed that even small differences in environment can have a big impact.

Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that pregnant women who lived in areas that had a lot of fast food restaurants gained unhealthy amounts of weight during their pregnancy, compared to pregnant women who didn’t have fast food restaurants near them.

The distance from their home to the fast food joints didn’t have to be far either. It could be as little as one mile, just outside what most people – particularly pregnant women – would feel like walking.

That’s what public health experts call a “toxic environment”, when the world around you makes it difficult to lead a healthy life.

That toxic environment could be living in a neighborhood that lacks good grocery stores where you can readily buy fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices.

It could be living in a community where the streets are too busy for children to be able to play out, and where there are few other facilities such as parks or community centers where they can go to play and feel safe.

It can be living in a community that is sandwiched between several major freeways and an industrial area so that the air quality is always questionable.

All those can make it difficult for people to make the kinds of changes they need to do to lead healthier lives. The last one makes it hard even for people who make changes to lead a healthier life, because the air they breathe is so bad.

That has a number of serious health implications.

First, it means that more people are likely to be overweight or even obese, putting themselves at greater risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Second it means that their immune systems are also more likely to be weak, making them more vulnerable to infections or viruses such as the recent swine flu virus. And if they are more likely to catch those viruses the odds are pretty high that they are also more likely to spread them to their family, friends and colleagues at work.

So, even if you are taking good care of yourself and doing all the right things, simply by coming in close contact with people who live in “toxic environments” your health is at risk.

This is something that affects us all. This is something we all have an interest in. That’s the good news, because it’s going to take all of us to make the kinds of societal changes we need to make to change things.

We need more open spaces for children to play in and for adults to be active in.

We need more grocery stores in poor and low-income neighborhoods so that people in those communities have access to fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices – and so they don’t have to take three buses across town to bring them home.

We need schools and community centers to open their doors to the people in the neighborhood in the evenings and at the weekend – so they can have somewhere to be active (especially in winter) and take classes, or just create a greater sense of community.

In a sense, until we make these kinds of improvements we are all living in a ‘toxic environment’.

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