Can moving to activity-friendly Mueller transform a couch potato?

Attention couch potatoes who live in neighborhoods lacking parks, walking trails and other exercise-promoting features: you might want to move.

Evidence is building that neighborhoods that encourage outdoor recreation have more physically active, healthier residents. Inactivity is associated with obesity-related illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, which the federal government estimated at $147 billion in medical costs in 2008.

Cancer is another ailment linked to inactivity, which prompted the National Cancer Institute to award a $2.7 million grant to Texas A&M University to study how a neighborhood’s natural and built environment influences physical activity.

The grant will enable researchers at the A&M Health Science Center, College of Architecture and other disciplines to examine relatively sedentary people moving to the activity-friendly Mueller development in East Austin. The researchers will measure changes in activity, before and after the move, by having people wear accelerometers, which measure exercise intensity, as well as GPS units.

“My hopes are this will be a model study for how to examine the consequences of neighborhood characteristics and to advance the science of cancer prevention,” said David Berrigan, a program director at the National Cancer Institute. “I’m excited. This is cutting-edge. … It’s a really cool study.”

The study is expected to provide more precise evidence to a growing body of research that activity-friendly neighborhoods encourage more active lifestyles — even in people who were loath to stray too far from the sofa.

It will build on a 2013-14 Texas A&M study in which Mueller residents answered surveys about changes in their activity after moving in.

“They had to remember how active they were before they moved,” said Marcia Ory, a leader of the new research team. Such memory-dependent studies can be less reliable than obtaining actual measures of activity, which Ory called an innovation in this study.

Another innovation, she said, is that researchers will ask those moving to Mueller to help identify “similar people” in their old neighborhood so the activity levels of movers and nonmovers can be compared.

The study also raises new questions, said Ory, associate dean for research at the A&M School of Public Health.

“Are people likely to be more active if they look out their window and see other people who are active?” she asked. “In Mueller, are people active all day long? Are they active in the morning or are they active after work? How does this compare to other people?”

Study participants will be asked to wear the monitors for seven days before they move and three more times: at six, 12 and 18 months after moving in, said Zhipeng Lu, a member of the research team.

About 3,000 people are expected to move in over the next few years as the development expands, Lu said. Researchers plan to enroll 350 people in the five-year study and will get help finding them from a variety of sources, including neighborhood associations, Ory said.

Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin applauded the Aggie study design. The UT center studied Mueller residents in 2009 and found that those who moved there increased their physical activity — especially those who had been the least active in their old neighborhoods.

“This sounds like a very complete study,” Hoelscher said. “It’s always nice to get more precise data … and it’s really helpful to urban planners.

“A lot of times when you build a community, health doesn’t come into it. But when you get data like this, this can really help make the case for putting health on the table.”

Are people who can’t move to a place like Mueller doomed to a fat life?

“No, no,” Ory said. “There are always solutions no matter where you live.”

Some people will just have to try harder.

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