Numerous studies have examined the relation between features of the neighborhood built environment and obesity related behaviors or obesity itself, to the extent that Healthy People 2020 includes goals for neighborhood built environment interventions to support physical activity. The neighborhood social environment has not been given equal attention in spite of its importance in the role that neighborhoods play in the risk or protection for obesity in the United States. In a recent commentary published in the Journal of Urban Health, Shakira Suglia and colleagues argue the importance of considering the neighborhood social environment for obesity prevention.
The neighborhood social environment is defined as “Relationships, groups and social processes that exist between individuals who live in a neighborhood”. Several constructs that make-up the neighborhood social environment, such as neighborhood safety, social capital and cohesion, neighborhood poverty, social networks and residential segregation, have all been associated with obesity, physical activity and diet as well as with psychosocial factors that may indirectly impact obesity.
Rather than continue to solely focus on the built environment, integrating constructs of the social environment, would be a more fruitful approach for the prevention of obesity in the US. A positive neighborhood social environment can facilitate the adoption and sustainability of protective factors such as physical activity, exercise, and healthy eating. For example, parents may be more apt to allow children to play outside in a safe neighborhood environment, this can promote greater usage of parks and recreational facilities were neighborhoods have opportunities to meet, talk and make connections developing a sense of cohesiveness and increasing social networks. High levels of social cohesion can influence social norms on individual behavior as well as influence neighborhood built environments (i.e, demanding healthy food establishments or recreational spaces). Interventions that can test the promotion of a positive neighborhood social environment for their benefits in obesity and obesogenic behaviors are needed.
Given that one third of adults and 17% of children 2 to 19 years of age in the United States are obese multifaceted solutions are needed to effectively address this complex issue and prevent obesity in the US.