Bike lanes and soda bans really do make you healthier, according to a new paper published in Obesity Reviews. Researchers at Drexel University scoured 115 past studies to figure out if adding a new amenity, like a park or bike lane really does translate into a healthier community. They also investigated whether food policies, like soda and trans-fat bans, could likewise improve wellbeing by restricting unhealthy activities.
"The studies found that cycling increased when bike lanes and bike shares were added,” says coauthor Stephanie Mayne, a doctoral student of epidemiology at Drexel University. More research, however, is needed to determine if parks and off-road trails similar improve health.
Reviewing the studies also led the Drexel researchers to another conclusion: The best way to discourage people from eating sugary foods is to have policies that ban them. "This makes sense," says co-author Amy Auchincloss, PhD, an associate professor of Epidemiology at Drexel. "We already eat too much, particularly foods with low nutritional quality."
According to the team’s analysis, public health researchers don't just need more studies, they need better studies to measure whether policy and infrastructure make a difference. For instance, some papers used an increase in the number of cyclists a signifier that people in the surrounding neighborhoods might be healthier. A more direct approach, says Mayne, would be to measure weight loss or changes in the body mass index of the riders instead. "Obesity is a huge public health issue in the U.S., and society as a whole can benefit from figuring out which types of policies and improvements to the environment help people eat more healthily and exercise more," Mayne says.
"This is a big challenge," Auchincloss says, "but well worth the effort." The key, she points out, is for policy makers to create environments where the default choice is the healthy choice. This could mean making parks, bike lanes, food bans the norm and not a novelty.