University of Oregon Research Project



The Role of Design in Obesity and Diet-Related Disease

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Project Research

Obesity Trends in America

Until recently, an active lifestyle was something that was woven into the fabric of everyday life. Over the last hundred years or so, however, modern conveniences have crept into all aspects of everyday life, simplifying daily activities while slowly eroding physical activity from daily life.


Elevators have largely replaced stairs as the preferred mode of vertical transportation, cars have replaced walking or biking, machines have taken the place of manual labor, and the surge of office jobs has led to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. As a result, more Americans than ever are reporting a lifestyle lacking in physical activity. In fact, more than half of adults in the United States are not regularly physically active, and over 25% of Americans report no leisure-time physical activity at all¹.

This lack of activity has taken a huge toll on obesity rates in America. In the mid-1970s, about one in ten Americans were obese, while today that number has mushroomed to one in three, with an additional third of the population classified as overweight². Men today weigh an average of 17 pounds more than they did as recently as the late 1970s, and women are an average of 19 pounds heavier². State-by-state obesity rates in the United States can be seen in the graphic above, which show rates climbing at an alarming rate in just a 20 year span of time.


Children are also affected by the growing trend towards living a sedentary lifestyle. Over 61% of children ages 9 to 13 are reported as not participating in organized physical activity outside of school, and over 22% of children are

reported as not taking part in free-time physical activity of any kind¹. Since 1980, childhood obesity has tripled and teenage obesity has more than quadrupled².


Changing eating habits have also played a critical role in contributing to the obesity epidemic. Over the past 30 years, the consumption of calories and carbohydrates has been on the rise, along with the intake of sugars and soda³. As consumption rates have risen, portion sizes have also continued to grow, and the availability of pre-packaged foods high in sugars and energy have also been on the uptick³. A flood of marketing and the typically low cost of these energy-rich foods make them all the more appealing to Americans, particularly those with low income levels³.

Causes of Obesity

Effects of Obesity

Economically, the consequences of excessive weight to the United States is estimated to be over $110 billion for treatment and lost wages as a result of obesity³. From a health standpoint, there are an immeasurable amount of consequences, beginning with 280,000-300,000 deaths each year as a result of obesity, which now kills more Americans annually than smoking²’³.
Obesity is often associated with depression, partly due to genetic traits linking the two conditions, and partly due to cause-and-effect relationships such as low self-esteem¹. People who are obese face a 40 times greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and increase their risk of high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, asthma, and gall bladder disease¹.
Heart disease and heart attacks are up to four times more likely for people who are overweight or obese¹. Mortality rates for people who are overweight or obese are as much as 2.5 times greater than those who are not obese¹.

The Role of Neighborhood Walkability

While diet and food intake certainly play a role in obesity, the problem cannot be solved by healthier eating alone. Regular physical activity is also a critical part of the equation¹. Physical activity does not just lower obesity rates, but has, in fact, been proven to prolong life, while lower rates of physical activity have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and all-cause mortality¹. Men who have the lowest amounts of physical activity have a “two-to threefold increased risk of dying overall, and a three-to fivefold increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease” than men who are more physically active¹. Women who walk ten blocks or more per day decrease their risk of cardiovascular disease by a third¹.
It is currently recommended that adults engage in at least a half hour of moderate physical activity at least five days per week¹. This can be accomplished through brisk walking, bicycling, and even gardening, and can be accomplished through multiple short activities of even ten minutes¹. Environments that are designed to help neighborhood residents achieve this level of activity are needed now more than ever. Neighborhoods with nearby stores and destinations provide a wonderful opportunity for residents to walk instead of drive to accomplish their errands – trips that make up the majority of all trips that people make¹.
Walkable neighborhoods promote utilitarian exercise, a form of exercise that is the easiest for people to accomplish because it becomes a part of their daily routine, making it easier to incorporate and maintain over time¹. With this strategy, even people who practice no other forms of physical activity can still achieve the recommended amount of exercise simply by walking to common destinations instead of driving.

Walking Radius

When designing for walkability, the distance that people are willing to travel must be kept in mind. Studies indicate that the average American is willing to walk less than a quarter of a mile for errands, and sometimes as little as 400 feet¹.  Below are the percentage of Americans willing to walk 500, 1,000, and 2,500 feet for their errands¹:

500 ft.


1,000 ft.


2,500 ft.


¹Frumkin, et. al. “Urban Sprawl and Public Health…”
²Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time
³American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 30.4 (2006)
ªActive Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design