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Girth and Growth

Congress weighs sprawl-induced fat problem

July 29, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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  One reason for America's obesity crisis is the auto-dependent design of so many communities: Driving everywhere is now much easier than walking anywhere.

Trimming America’s expanding waistline is not hopeless. It’s just going to be harder than anybody thought. Just ask doctors. Like others concerned about the health of America, medical experts have spent years trying to get their patients to get out, use their muscles, and simply get moving.

But, as soon as their charges have finally gotten off the couch, they’re already sitting down again — behind the wheel of a car.

Super-sized American waistlines, say a growing number of public health officials, appear to be caused, at least in part, by superhighways and cars, massive parking lots with no sidewalks in sight, and all the other artifacts of America’s sprawl-dominant, vehicle-dependent lifestyle. We live in a civilization that is more comfortable encouraging vehicles, not people, to move.

A Legislator Gets Moving
Such concerns have now jumped out of the public health field and into the political arena. Referring to the “daily-growing girth of America,” U.S. Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota introduced a proposal in June that would dedicate millions of dollars in federal transportation spending to making it safe and convenient to walk and bicycle.

“We have a lifestyle time bomb exploding right before our eyes,” said Rep. Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “With this bill we can change the lifestyle habits of an entire generation.”

The biggest chunk of the proposed $1.8 billion, five-year Pedestrian and Cyclist Equity Act, would establish a $250 million Safe Routes to School program to support the grassroots movement already underway in many states. Safe Routes to School programs dedicate significant resources to making the streets around schools available for walking and biking, and encouraging children to use them. Right now, less than one percent of federal transportation funds go to building or modernizing bicycling and walking infrastructure.

By the way, the walk to school is a good example of how sprawl has removed physical activity from everyday life. Many kids now attend brand-new ‘sprawl schools’ built on the edges of communities and far from their homes. Others face busy roads and vehicles moving at high speeds. A recent survey found that while 70 percent of today’s parents biked or walked to school when they were kids, just 18 percent of their children do so today. 

The Wages of Inactivity
It’s no wonder that the consequences of America’s sprawling communities are most evident in children. Obesity is on the rise in kids, with 15 percent of children aged 6 to 19 now considered overweight, double the childhood rate 25 years ago. For teens, the rate has tripled.

Adult-onset diabetes, which is related to obesity and physical inactivity, is showing up with increasing frequency in young children — so much so that doctors now call it ‘Type 2’ diabetes instead. A new study predicts that one out of every three children born in 2000 will become diabetic unless Americans begin to eat less and exercise more. That’s up from the current level of less than one in ten, which was already considered an epidemic.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says obesity and physical inactivity may soon overtake tobacco as the number-one health threat in the nation. Physical inactivity already contributes to the premature deaths of an estimated 200,000 Americans each year, or roughly 10 percent of all deaths annually in the United States.

What a shame. The latest research shows that even the modest physical activity involved in walking to the store or biking to the park can significantly improve fitness levels, which contributes to a healthier and longer life. And that’s why public health officials bet that by encouraging American communities to be bikeable and walkable, as they once were, they can improve the health of the population.

Wanted: A Common Sense Policy
Behind the new motivation to focus on community design is one scientifically confirmed fact — physical activity is basic to human well-being — and another that is gaining confirmation: America’s sprawling communities discourage physical activity, unless you count use of a right foot and two hands to drive a car.

Thus the U.S. Surgeon General’s action plan for reducing obesity includes creating more places to walk and bicycle. The National Association of County and City Health Officials is educating its membership, and the American Public Health Association focuses on the issue through its journal, conferences, and community outreach. The American Heart Association makes changing transportation policy to promote bicycling and walking a legislative priority. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national foundation based in New Jersey, also is putting considerable resources behind the effort.

Through their work on the links between sprawl and spreading waistlines, public health practitioners have zeroed in on another fundamental reason why Smart Growth makes sense. Designing communities where people can easily get around on their own two feet or their bicycle makes us healthier.

Clearly this new recognition appears, ahem, to have legs. Walking is already the most common form of exercise. More than half of Americans say they would like to walk and bicycle more than they do now. The added knowledge that living in a well-designed community could make it easier to shed a few pounds will only add to Smart Growth’s appeal.

Barbara A. McCann, the former director of information and research at Smart Growth America, is a consultant in Washington, D.C.  who studies the links between sprawl and public health. She can be reached at barbara@bmccann.net.

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