Health geography: does that mean making sure geographers are healthy?

As previously promised, here is a post on what health geographers study. While we do care about the health and well-being of our colleagues, we’re more concerned with how health issues and diseases are distributed in neighborhoods, cities, states, countries, and around the globe.

This semester I’ve been teaching an undergraduate class on health geography. It has been great to step outside the mosquito-borne disease box and think about bigger issues of health as they relate to geography. So, today I’m going to break from my usual focus and talk about a non-infectious disease that we are all familiar with: Obesity in the US

If you click on the link above, it will take you to a CDC map that shows the spatial distribution of obesity in this country. Or, more simply put, the geography of where obesity is most common. As a health geographer, when I see this map, I have two motivations: description and explanation.

Description: Mapping health data gives me a chance to describe the locations that have a lot of cases. Here, we can see a lot of cases in the south. I might want to dig into the data a little deeper to find if certain groups within the south have higher rates of obesity. I might be able to describe general trends as they relate to age, gender, ethnicity, income, etc. But being able to describe that a certain population in a region has higher cases of obesity isn’t always enough. The next step is of course asking why!

Explanation: the question of why brings us to the step of explanation. And there are lots of possible explanations to consider. Here, I’ll briefly go through some that come to mind:

– genetics: is there something hereditary that predisposes those groups?

– lifestyle: are those individuals not eating healthy or exercising?

– community: is this a community that promotes an active lifestyle? (are there safe places to run or walk? are they lit at night and removed from vehicles? are there bicycle lanes for alternative transportation?)

– healthy food options: is there access to healthy food? food deserts are a growing concern in this country. They occur when populations of people don’t have access to fresh foods, such as produce. This can happen in rural and urban areas that lack supermarkets,  produce in markets, or simply the cost of these items is prohibitive to the population. In these situations, people are often forced to select less nutritious options, and not by choice.

– income: this relates directly to the issue above. fresh produce can be expensive in some locations, and the cost can go up when it has to be transported further distances. It isn’t just a question of access, but also affordability.

The irony, particularly in rural food deserts, is that produce is still being grown in those regions! but often it ends up getting exported – with very little, if any, going to local markets. Sometimes the agriculture has been transformed to single crops, and no longer supports the diversity of nutritional needs of a population. The link below to a PBS video goes into this issue in more detail:  and also talks about how community gardens (both urban and rural) are looking to address these issues:

These just touch on some of the explanations we could offer. It could be biological, a result of human choices, or the problem could be deeper in our society. Are we making sure we have safe places to exercise and that health options are available at affordable costs? These are the questions health geographers ask, and the types of explanations that might be given. Often, we take interdisciplinary perspectives and try to understand how a multiplicity of explanations come together to explain the patterns we see.

So there you have it – a crash course in health geography! With more to come, of course.