When is the last time your doctor asked about your living environment to learn more about your health? Often times, health care professionals view individual health through the lens of genetics and lifestyle choices. These are important, as they can provide a roadmap for physicians, knowing what to expect in the future and how to advise you to improve your health moving forward. However, there is another side to your health, one that’s less in your control than the foods you eat or the amount of exercise you get on a weekly basis: your environment.
From a public health standpoint, your environment encompasses the people you associate with, where you live, and the policies that govern your city. The Social-Ecological Model (SEM) is used as a guiding framework for prevention programs to address a variety of public health issues like societal violence, cancer, poor nutrition, and obesity. Here are the three levels where environmental factors affect your health:
- Interpersonal Level
Think about the people you associate with on a regular basis. This could be your co-workers, classmates or family members. How do their lifestyle choices, such as the foods they eat or the workouts they do, influence your behaviors? Do you eat out together on a regular basis or do you meal prep every Sunday night together? Do you train for half marathons together or do you partake in Netflix marathons as a group?
2. Community Level
Details of your physical environment, including the layout of your city’s sidewalks, availability of public transportation, the amount of green spaces and well-lit areas to promote healthy activity, and the proximity to grocers that carry fresh foods all impact your health. The term “food desert”, which has gained traction when discussing barriers to health in low-income communities, is a great example.
Where do you buy your weekly groceries? Do they come from a grocery store, farmers market or gas station? How far are you from that location? Can you easily access it by car, on foot, or by bus?
3. Policy Level
Although you may not think of it, public policy has a large hand in your personal health and safety. Think about state laws that require you to wear a seatbelt while driving or adhere to speed limits on interstates. These state-wide policies have a trickle-down effect to influence the health of individuals. Does your city ban smoking in public places or have higher taxes on alcohol? While groups like smokers may feel they’re unfairly impacted,, these policies are in place to benefit the entire city as a whole.
The next time you’re walking or driving in your city, take a look around. What are billboards advertising in your city? Do you see fast food chain marketing campaigns or signs promoting early detection of preventable diseases? Does your city promote alternatives to driving with the availability of intact, well-lit sidewalks, bus stops, and bike lanes? This is your environment, and it’s impacting your health. So the next time your doctor tells you to eat more fruits and vegetables and get more physical activity, think about how your communities affect your ability to do that.