Walking for as few as 30 minutes a day is the easiest way to jumpstart a fitness routine, according to the American Heart Association. Unfortunately, many aspects of our lives, notably our jobs and the places we live, have led to less walking and more sitting and driving.

Researchers from the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto have compared overweight, obesity, and diabetes rates among urban neighborhoods in Ontario, Canada, with a more walkable design to those in less walkable neighborhoods. Their findings show that the rates of these conditions tend to be lower in neighborhoods that promote physical activity via walking than in areas where cars are the main source of transportation.

These are encouraging, if preliminary, results. The "ecologic nature of these findings and the lack of evidence that more walkable urban neighborhood design was associated with increased physical activity suggest that further research is necessary to assess whether the observed associations are causal,” said the researchers in a statement.

Lead researcher Dr. Gillian L. Booth and her colleagues used annual provincial health care data and responses from the biennial Canadian Community Health Survey for adults living in 8,777 Southern Ontario neighborhoods between 2001 and 2012. They determined walkability through four equally weighted components: population density, residential density, walkable destinations, and street connectivity. They ranked the neighborhoods on a scale of 1 to 5.

Overweight and obesity rates were as low as 43 percent in more walkable neighborhoods and 54 percent in less walkable ones in 2001. These rates increased between 2001 and 2012 in areas that were less walkable, while they remained the same in more walkable neighborhoods. Diabetes rates also improved in walkable neighborhoods while remaining the same in those that were less walkable. Walking or cycling and public transit use were also higher in walkable neighborhoods while car use was lower.

Booth and her colleagues presented data from a similar study to the American Diabetes Association’s 74th Scientific Sessions that found that people who live in areas conducive to walking are less likely to suffer from obesity, overweight, and diabetes, and were three times more likely to walk or bicycle and half as likely to drive. Evidence has also correlated living within walking distance of everyday necessities with lower risk for high blood pressure.

Walkable neighborhoods are those with a dense population, more destinations within walking distance of residential areas, and well-connected streets. These areas tend to have higher rates of walking and cycling and lower rates of car use. Driving to work may be easier and take less time than public transportation, but it can also wreak havoc on our health.

In addition to encouraging less driving and more walking, urban neighborhoods may also provide an inherent benefit when it comes to our eating habits. Researchers from Indiana University–Purdue University examined how living in close proximity to a grocery store with fresh fruits and vegetables can impact our health. The majority of residents who lacked a nearby grocery store agreed that they would be more likely to buy healthy food if it were a convenient option.

Areas of the country with either no grocery store or a single store that is surrounded by smaller convenience stores that sell alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, and non-perishable foods are known as food deserts. Not only are fruits and vegetables scarce in these neighborhoods, but the ones that can be found are also more expensive. People who live in these areas of a city tend to experience higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.

Source: Rundle A, Heymsfield S, Booth G. Can Walkable Urban Design Play a Role in Reducing the Incidence of Obesity-Related Conditions? JAMA . 2016.