New Zealand's most active city revealed

By Martin Johnston

Adults who joined the study in the New Zealand capital, at 50.1 minutes a day, marched ahead of rivals in Auckland. Photo / iStock
Adults who joined the study in the New Zealand capital, at 50.1 minutes a day, marched ahead of rivals in Auckland. Photo / iStock

Wellington, that city of the striding civil servant armed with a briefcase, has beaten 13 other sites studied around the globe as the urban area whose adults do the most physical activity.

Adults who joined the study in the New Zealand capital, at 50.1 minutes a day, marched ahead of rivals in Auckland, by walking, running and generally moving about for nearly five minutes more each day than those on the North Shore, and for almost 13 minutes more than those in Waitakere.

The study was carried out in 14 urban areas in 10 countries and 6822 adults were monitored using accelerometers. On average, participants did 37.3 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity -- the equivalent of at least a brisk walk.

Residents of Baltimore in the United States were the least active, at 29.2 minutes a day.

The authors of the study, published today in the British journal The Lancet, looked for environmental factors within participants' neighbourhoods that might explain their varying amounts of physical activity.

They found that higher levels of activity were linked to:

• Greater housing density
• More road intersections
• More parks within walking distance
• More public transport stops.

"Neighbourhoods with high residential density tend to have connected streets, shops and services, meaning people will be more likely to walk to their local shops," says Professor James Sallis, of the University of California at San Diego and lead author of the study.

He says the distance to the nearest public transport stop was not associated with higher levels of physical activity, although the number of nearby stops was.

"This might mean that with more options, people are more likely to walk further to get to a transport stop that best meets their needs.

"The number of local parks was also important since parks not only provide places for sport, but also a pleasant environment to walk in."

The study's New Zealand participants lived in areas of much lower average housing and intersection density than those for the 14 areas internationally taken together. Three of the New Zealand areas on average also had more public transport stops within 1km than the norm, although Waitakere participants had fewer. The North Shore, Waitakere and Christchurch neighbourhoods had more parks within 1km of the participants' homes than average; Wellington had fewer.

Globally, the researchers found that people in the 5 per cent of neighbourhoods with the highest housing density did one and a half hours more physical activity a week than those in the 5 per cent that were the least dense.

One of the researchers, Professor Grant Schofield, of Auckland University of Technology, says, "How we lay out our cities makes a big difference to how much we move, regardless of other factors."

"The older suburbs like Devonport and Takapuna support the most activity. The newer and less-dense suburbs like Titirangi support the least activity.

"Auckland has both the best and worst of suburbs. The designs that occurred naturally before cars were invented support the most walking."

Professor Schofield says infrastructure like the proposed SkyPath cycle and pedestrian lane for the Harbour Bridge and the amount of housing-density increase permitted by the Unitary Plan will play a key role in the amount of physical activity Aucklanders get in future.

"It's a shame Auckland Council repealed the changes in density around Auckland. We need a denser city to improve our health and wellbeing. Auckland was on its way to doing this, only to lose its way again.

"Our team and others have tried all sorts of trials where we try and get people more active. It works for some people, temporarily. These city-wide design changes permanently influence everyone's activity, so they are a better solution to an important aspect of health."

The backers of the study include the NZ Health Research Council. The journal paper discloses that Professor Sallis has received "non-financial support from Nike outside of this article" and that data collection in Mexico was supported by a public health foundation which received a grant from Coca-Cola.

Average minutes spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity a day

37.3 - All cities in the study
35.5 - Ghent, Belgium
31.5 - Curitiba, Brazil
37 - Bogota, Colombia
47.1 - Olomouc, Czech Republic
39.7 - Aarhus, Denmark
44.9 - Hong Kong
31.2 - Cuernavaca, Mexico
45.7 - North Shore, Auckland
37.2 - Waitakere, Auckland
50.1 - Wellington
44 - Christchurch
36.7 - Stoke-on-Trent, UK
36.3 - Seattle, US
29.2 - Baltimore, US

Source: The Lancet

How much should adults do?

The Ministry of Health recommends a minimum of:

• Two and a half hours of moderate or one and a quarter hours or vigorous physical activity a week
• Twice as much for "extra health benefits"
• Healthy diet and physical activity help maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers

- NZ Herald

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