Designing Supportive Environments for Chronic Disease Prevention
While the widely held belief of personal choice and responsibility remains a popular narrative in relation to population health and chronic disease prevention, it is glaringly evident that individual behaviours have limited impact when our broader social and structural environments are not conducive to good health and well-being.
We have structured (or restructured) our environments to be health-disrupting.
Our modern food environment, for example, is dominated by energy dense, nutrient poor and heavily processed convenience foods, that are contributing to a range of chronic diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Our towns and cities have been designed to support motorized transportation, instead of human-powered movement through walking or cycling, creating a dependency on cars that impacts individual physical activity rates.
The built environment, i.e., the communities or buildings where people reside or spend time, has been the focus of intense study over recent years. Neighbourhoods where people live are known to impact health in a variety of ways. Of relevance to the health of populations is the impact of neighbourhood characteristics on physical activity and eating behaviours, as two key risk factors for chronic diseases. Other environments that might help or hinder the health of populations include workplaces, schools and recreational settings.
When viewed through the lens of the determinants of health, a health-disrupting environment means that, as individuals, we are constantly pushing a boulder of health hazards up a ramp of social and structural determinants of health. It takes an enormous amount of cognitive effort to adopt and maintain healthy behaviours such as being active or eating healthy foods, when everything around us is modelling the opposite behaviours. In essence, healthy behaviours are abnormal behaviours within our modern environment, and unhealthy behaviours are the default.
Read our snapshot on this topic here.