A healthy environment encourages people to adopt healthier behaviours

Our living environment affects our health. The place we live, what we eat, how much we exercise, the kind of work we do and the people we interact with – all these environmental factors play a role. But how important are they in terms of our health and how are they all connected? We still haven't really answered any of these questions. The Urban Labs study aims to do just that through a large-scale survey in five European countries: Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Switzerland. A conversation with researchers Anke Huss and Ayoung Jeong.

Urban Labs study participants receive a package of measurement tools, including an air quality measurement sensor that can be attached to a bicycle.

“This European study should help us gather as much data as possible in different countries and environments over the next few years. Northern, central and southern Europe,” explains Anke Huss, researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University (Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences) and responsible for coordinating the Dutch leg of the Urban Labs study, the ‘Exposome Panel Study’. “We’ve already gained a lot of knowledge from previous studies. For example, air pollution and excessive noise aren’t good for our health, but exercise and a green environment are,” Huss continues. “However, we still have a lot to learn about the complexities. Out of all the environmental factors, what are the most important health determinants? To what extent does the environment determine our behaviour and which factors are you exposed to in which social settings? We’re currently conducting this long-term study to identify all those factors.” 

Recruiting participants

A total of around four thousand people – eight hundred per location – are taking part in the Urban Labs study. They started earlier in Barcelona and have already signed up about a thousand participants, but the Netherlands is still in the early stages of the study. The other countries are also still working to recruit participants. Huss: “It’s still too early to say anything about the results. We were able to take a first look at the questionnaire results at the end of last year, but that only gave us a broad idea of the situation. We’re using various tools during the study, including sensors, GPS trackers and sports watches, but it will be some time before we can analyse those measurements.” 

Our environment determines our lifestyle 

“We want to understand how people behave in specific environments,” explains Ayoung Jeong, coordinator of the Urban Labs study and working at Swiss TPH in Basel, which is coordinating the research under the direction of professor Nicole Probst-Hensch. “We’re measuring subjective factors as well as objective ones, so that also includes the way people perceive their environment,” Jeong explains. “The results could ultimately help policymakers, architects and engineers design healthier environments.”

Close-up of the sensor on the bike.

Motivating people to cycle

“Let me give an example,” Huss says. “We want people to cycle more because exercise is good for your health. You need bike lanes in order to cycle safely. But if people perceive cycling as dangerous, they might not do it even if there is a bike lane. That’s why it’s important to know what the environment is like and figure out how people experience their environment and how that perception affects them. In terms of prevention, you could design an environment that prevents people from developing unhealthy lifestyles, but perhaps there are also factors that actually help people make healthier choices.”

Walking or exercising

As Jeong knows from personal experience, a healthy living environment helps you adopt healthier behaviours. “I’ve lived in Korea and Switzerland. My behaviour here in Basel is completely different from the way it was in Seoul, both in terms of my diet and the amount of steps I walk each day. But I’m still the same person. My lifestyle is really shaped by the way in which the city is structured. In Seoul, nothing was within walking distance, so you’d inevitably end up taking the bus or metro. Basel is very pedestrian friendly, so I go everywhere on foot. In other words, my behaviour is all connected to my circumstances.”

“People's behaviour is important to health, so how can we build our environment to encourage people adopting healthy habits?”

Do you have any tips for our readers?

"It's hard to give any general advice, but a healthy lifestyle is the one factor that really stands out," Huss says. How can our built environment encourage people to adopt healthier habits? This is what this work is about."

Jeong also believes we should be more focused on the living environment. "If people live in a green environment, that automatically encourages them to go for walks or exercise. That's nothing like living in an environment without any green spaces. Obesity in the US would be a good example. You can't just blame it all on people's behaviour, because Americans really aren't that different from Europeans at the end of the day. Just try finding a local supermarket with fresh produce in the US: that's actually quite hard. It's easy to blame people's behaviour, but the environment also plays an important role in determining our health."

So designers and policymakers can make a real difference?

"Exactly!", Huss replies. "But they can only do that if they know which dials to turn. And that's where our study comes in."

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