How Your Body Reacts to Life in the City

Motion-blurred image of a crowd of people moving across a crosswalk and along the nearby sidewalk of a busy city street.

Throughout 2020, there were reports of an overwhelming migration out of American cities. While home sales in suburban and rural areas are booming, it may not be due to people leaving cities to buy property. According to one study, the overall number of people who left urban neighborhoods between March and September of 2020 was about 10,000 per month. 

The cause for city shrinkage, these researchers say, is that fewer people are migrating to cities. In that same period in 2020, the number of people migrating to cities decreased by a higher rate, with approximately 18,000 fewer people moving to the city every month. 

That doesn’t mean people aren’t moving to urban areas. Several cities in the south and west are seeing record growth: Between 2017 and 2018, Phoenix, AZ welcomed about 25,000 new residents, and San Antonio and Fort Worth, Texas each saw about 20,000 new arrivals. Several other cities around the country saw their populations increase to over 50,000 and 100,000 residents, indicating that life “in town” still appeals to plenty of people.  

Positive Effects of City Living

There are pros and cons to living in the city when it comes to housing options, education, employment opportunities, and social life and culture. What many people may not consider, though, is how living in the city can affect both your physical and mental health. 

More Opportunities to Socialize

Living in the city often means being surrounded by other people. Neighbors live closer together, the sidewalks are often crowded with other people going about their days, and city parks and playgrounds are usually hives of activity. Although living in such proximity can be challenging at times, it also makes socializing and spending time with others easier and more convenient. 

Research shows that social relationships support healthy behaviors and improved physical health. More specifically, social relationships:

  • Help people live longer;
  • Reduce the risk of death among those with documented health conditions;
  • Support healthy behaviors; 
  • Increase overall satisfaction and reduce risk of depression.

On the other hand, social isolation is linked to a host of health issues, including depression and anxiety, cognitive decline, and worsening chronic conditions. While these can be offset by following health and wellness trends, these practices can’t mitigate them entirely.

That’s not to say that life outside the city is isolated, but the range of opportunities in urban areas available allows you to meet more people. Volunteer opportunities, community events, social clubs, and networking events are plentiful in the city, allowing for a rich and varied social life. 

Various Activities to Choose From

Physical activity is vital to health, and living in a city provides a surprising number of options to get moving. The most obvious advantage to a city’s life and health offerings is its walkability. In a study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, researchers found that people living in the suburbs are more likely to be obese and be less active than those living in more densely packed areas. 

The problem, researchers concluded, is sprawl. While city neighborhoods are typically walkable, and most urbanites walk as their primary form of transportation, that’s not the case in the suburbs. Even when a destination is nearby, a lack of sidewalks or bike lanes or a busy intersection can make it challenging or even dangerous to walk. 

In many suburban communities, the fact that most residents have their own yards means that fewer people use city parks or other resources for physical activities. Larger cities, however, recognize the lack of “private” space and have begun implementing more urban solutions to create public spaces that support physical activity. These include creating more parks and green spaces, adding bike lanes, and hosting public outreach activities to get residents out and about.  

Numerous Dining Options

One of the main attractions for both visitors and residents of major cities is the wide variety of dining options. In any major city, you can find virtually any type of cuisine, from five-star gourmet dining to street vendors. Although city dwellers tend to eat out more than their suburban and rural counterparts, the vast array of healthy food options correlates with lower rates of obesity and weight-related illnesses. 

City dwellers also shop for groceries differently. Research shows that many people in cities stop at their local grocer on the way home from work or school, only purchase what they need for the next day or two, and they are less likely to keep prepared or shelf-stable foods at home. They are also more likely to shop the perimeters of stores for fresh foods than people in suburban areas, which contributes to overall healthier eating habits

Negative Effects of City Living

There are some disadvantages of living in the city when it comes to your physical and mental health.

Diminished Mental Wellbeing

Despite the positive effects of socialization and exercise, living in the hustle and bustle of city life can take a toll on your mind. Researchers report that living in the city increases stress and reduces your ability to handle stress. The more stressed you are, the longer your body remains in “fight or flight” mode. The result is an increased response to even minimal amounts of stress, something that people living in rural areas are less likely to have. 

Living with excessive amounts of stress is detrimental to nearly every aspect of your life

Some of the effects of excess stress include:

  • Increased likelihood of stress and anxiety; 
  • Memory problems;
  • Changes to your appearance, including acne, hair loss, and premature aging
  • Sleep disturbances;
  • Weight gain;
  • Heart problems, including high blood pressure; 
  • Weight gain due to increased cortisol production. 

It’s possible to treat the effects of stress through relaxation, exercise, a healthy diet, and healthy relationships, as well as utilizing hair restoration products to recover physically, but it’s better to avoid it as much as possible. 

Exposure to Pollution

Pollution is a major concern in large cities. A high concentration of people, vehicles, and buildings releasing all manner of exhaust affect the air; in fact, one study suggested that living in a city is the equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Even if you live in a relatively clean city, you face an increased risk of respiratory conditions like emphysema from breathing the dirty air. 

It’s not just your lungs that can suffer from polluted city air. A lack of fresh air can cause:

  • Mental health issues: The inability to see blue sky through polluted air contributes to psychological distress.
  • Impaired thinking: Students taking tests in polluted cities do not perform as well as those in clean air. 
  • Increased weight: Breathing polluted air can cause inflammation in the lungs, which in turn can affect metabolism and contribute to weight gain. 
  • Premature aging: Air pollution can lead to signs of hair loss and skin issues like dehydration, wrinkles and lines, and acne.

Living outside of the city typically means cleaner air, and thus a lower chance of these issues. 

Ultimately, though, the choice of whether you want to live in the city or the country is yours, and is controlled by several factors. Taking the health factors into account matters, though, so don’t overlook these important considerations.

Health, Lifestyle

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