Where people live, spend time impacts their health

Shannon Zenk

Shannon Zenk hopes her work inspires environment and policy approaches to improve people’s health. — Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Shannon Zenk has a lot of healthy options to choose from at her local supermarket. Others aren’t as lucky, and it may affect their wellbeing.

Zenk conducts groundbreaking research to understand how neighborhoods, including food access, affect health behaviors and contribute to health-related disparities. Her studies show that segregated low-income neighborhoods often provide poor access to healthy foods (so-called “food deserts”).

“Poor diet and obesity are generally higher among low-income and African American women in the United States,” said Zenk, associate professor in the College of Nursing. “Less access to healthy foods may contribute.”

Until recently, most research in the area of neighborhoods and health has concentrated solely on how environments where people live influence what they eat and how physically active they are. Zenk’s research expanded that to include neighborhoods where people spend time.

This research involved an innovative use of global positioning system technology to track the subjects’ movements in and out of their neighborhoods as they went about their daily activities. She examined correlations between neighborhood environments where they spent time with their diet and physical activity.

“I hope my research can identify effective environment and policy approaches to improve people’s health and eliminate socioeconomic and racial inequities,” she said.

Zenk recently led a study to evaluate Chicago’s new 2.7-mile $95 million 606 Park and Trail System between Ashland and Ridgeway Avenues on the Northwest Side. UIC students surveyed adults and found that almost half reported exercising more since using the trail. People also reported using the trail to reduce stress and connect with their community.

Zenk and her team will share the results with the Chicago Park District, the Trust for Public Land and community residents.

With Elizabeth Tarlov, she is currently studying how neighborhood environments affect changes in weight, blood pressure and other health outcomes over time in more than three million U.S. military veterans nationwide.

Zenk and Tarlov are also testing whether veterans lose more weight in a weight management program and keep it off if they live in neighborhoods with better food and physical activity environments.

In her career, Zenk has published 75 articles and book chapters and has presented her work in 10 countries. She collaborates with researchers across many disciplines, including public health, geography, nutritional science and urban planning, among others. Her collaborations have produced 23 funded national grants totaling more than $42 million.

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