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Obesogenic environments: a systematic review of the association between the physical environment and adult weight status

Obesogenic environments: a systematic review of the association between the physical environment and adult weight status

Understanding which physical environmental factors affect adult obesity, and how best to influence them, is important for public health and urban planning. Previous attempts to summarise the literature have not systematically assessed the methodological quality of included studies, or accounted for environmental differences between continents or the ways in which environmental characteristics were measured.


We have conducted an updated review of the scientific literature on associations of physical environmental factors with adult weight status, stratified by continent and mode of measurement, accompanied by a detailed risk-of-bias assessment. Five databases were systematically searched for studies published between 1995 and 2013.


Two factors, urban sprawl and land use mix, were found consistently associated with weight status, although only in North America.


With the exception of urban sprawl and land use mix in the US the results of the current review confirm that the available research does not allow robust identification of ways in which that physical environment influences adult weight status, even after taking into account methodological quality.

Obesity prevention is a global public health priority as a result of the worldwide increase in obesity prevalence [1] and its associated chronic diseases [2]. Although genetic factors may underlie the propensity of individuals to become obese [3], the pace at which obesity prevalence has grown at population level during recent decades points to social and environmental causes [4,5]. An individual’s body mass index (BMI) is mainly determined by energy intake (eating) and energy expenditure (physical activity/sedentary behaviour). These energy balance related behaviours (EBRBs) are influenced by a range of determinants [6]. One important category of determinants is the opportunities for calorie intake and calorie expenditure or a lack thereof in the physical environment. For example, dietary behaviour may be influenced by access to different foods through various types of outlets and services. Similarly, physical activity levels may be influenced by access to recreational or sports facilities, green spaces or parks, as well as transport infrastructure and land use. Certain environments may be more ‘obesogenic’ than others, such that they are more likely to promote weight gain and obesity in individuals or populations [5], but it remains a challenge to identify the physical environmental factors with the greatest impacts on (the development of) overweight and obesity.

Following a steady increase in studies relating characteristics of the physical environment to overweight or obesity in the last decade, a number of reviews was published between 2005 and 2012 [7-12], showing mixed results. Among a large range of factors that have been examined, only two environmental correlates appeared to be consistently associated with weight status: indicators of urban sprawl (often based on population density, and positively associated with obesity) and measures of land use mix (negatively associated with obesity) [12,13]. However, there are numerous potential correlates of obesity from the physical environment and it is plausible that many other environmental factors such as access to recreation areas, proximity to fast food outlets or the presence of walking and cycling infrastructure might influence weight status through their links to food and physical activity behavior [14-17]. It may be that the heterogeneity in methods and measures used, or differences in contexts or location, has led to this lack of consistent results.