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Out of the Car and Into Shape

Countering a crisis with a neighborhood stroll

February 17, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Solutions to America’s crisis over obesity and its attendant health care costs are not all about shopping, but rather about design, and place, and community. The ingredients for a much healthier life can be right at home.

When I moved to Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side, walking and biking was a matter of practicality: As a student at the University of Chicago at the turn of the 21st century, I didn’t have a car. So I walked or biked to classes, jobs, the grocery store, and bookstore.

On Saturday mornings, I dutifully packed Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu and trudged off to the library. I walked up 56th street, with its quiet houses and gardens, turned on Woodlawn Avenue by the red stone Baptist church and walked to the Unitarian church on the next corner. Then I’d double back along 57th Street to rifle through the box of free used books outside of Powell’s Bookstore or buy a cinnamon roll at the Medici bakery. By the time I reached the Midway, a sweeping boulevard with playing fields at the center and flanked by long stretches of white blossomed trees, I would have been procrastinating for at least three-quarters of a mile.

I’m 23 years old now, and unlike most Americans, even people my age, I’m still walking. As a student I avoided the ‘freshman 15’ because exercising wasn’t a matter of discipline — it was just how you got around. As an editor, living in a rural village in northern Michigan, I'm just as slim even though I now have a car and it’s harder to stay fit, especially in the deep snow, cold, and dark of winter.

Nevertheless I’m outside a lot because it’s interesting to be here. I watch the ice form on Crystal Lake or look at the silhouettes of snow-covered branches. I learned that it is possible to be out at night because the luminous snow makes a natural street light.

Depriving Americans of Interesting Places
Most of us, though, don’t have the same access to beautiful landscapes, urban or rural. Opportunities for exercise – walking or running especially — are impeded by cul-de-sacs, or busy and dangerous highways that form moats between neighborhoods. Exercise quickly amounts to a tedious and time-consuming chore that too many Americans avoid. 

The consequences of our sedentary lifestyle are just starting to be measured in ways that go well beyond whether your pants make you look fat or you spend too much time studying the South Beach diet. The convergence of high calorie food and low physical activity has produced a public health and economic crisis in the United States.

According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, a research organization North Carolina, the number of people who walk to work decreased by 30 percent during the 1990s, a factor in America’s obesity epidemic. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, 30 percent of American adults are obese and the percentage of overweight youngsters has more than tripled since 1980. Type 2 diabetes and hypertension increased by about 30 percent over the past decade and public health organizations predict that this is just the beginning.

Just as significant as the declining health of millions of Americans is the corresponding rise in the medical bill for treating them, which is crippling government health programs and bankrupting business-sponsored health and retirement programs. Here in Michigan, for instance, General Motors conducted a two-year study of nearly 200,000 employees and found that overweight and obese individuals incur up to $1,500 more in annual medical costs when compared to slimmer employees.

Snacks Are Out, Neighborhood Is In
Given that Americans like to think that there are ready answers to any complex problem, our cultural reflex is to cruise the diet section of the book store, listen to Oprah’s guests, or watch for exercise equipment bargains on QVC. Buy my book. Buy my barbells. Snack on my low-carb cookies, clamor the obesity profiteers. 

Let me suggest a solution that’s not all about shopping, but rather about design, and place, and community. The walkable places that get us out of the car and into shape have a few things in common: A web of interconnecting streets, a variety of building types, attractive architectural details, a mixture of homes and shops, public parks and private gardens, and sidewalks. Like crushed garlic, fresh basil, or fragrant rosemary, these ingredients add flavor, spice, and pleasure to a walk through a neighborhood. And none of these ingredients are exotic — they can and do grow in Midwestern soil.

The problem of course, is that human beings were meant to move. But too many of our newer suburbs hem us in. They are as out of sync with our biological needs as our diet. Fast food, snacks, and soda provide enough calories to feed a 19th century lumberjack; our homes, and neighborhoods, and transportation systems are designed to spare us any effort. You don’t even have to crank down the window anymore.

A Walk in Wisconsin
Personally, I enjoy walking, but maybe that’s because I had an unusually active mother. When my family moved from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest almost 20 years ago, switching our allegiance from the Clemson Tigers to the Wisconsin Badgers, my mother shocked our Carolina relatives by taking the baby ice skating and making my sister and me walk to school in all weather. Unless the wind chill dipped below zero, we walked a mile to Randall, a handsome red brick elementary school built in the early 1900s.

My grandmothers worried that we would get frostbite or hypothermia. Instead, we got the first glimpse of snowdrops, purple crocuses, and little blue scillas each year. We knew every house and garden along the route, and Caleb, who has got to be one of the world’s oldest corgis, still recognizes me from my elementary school days.

Like a favorite recipe passed down from grandmother to granddaughter, my neighborhoods in Madison and Chicago are based on the same wholesome, old-fashioned ingredients that still taste good today. Walking to school, shopping on Main Street, sipping coffee at the bakery between classes is as American as apple pie, as familiar as grandma’s chicken and dumplings. There’s no reason we can’t mix the dough according to grandma’s recipe, and there’s no reason we can’t build neighborhoods that are delightful and interesting to explore.

When I retrace the old route during visits home, I add long detours to see the red house with a round turret and immense sunflowers, the Frank Lloyd Wright airplane house, and the university chancellor’s house. I pass under shade-giving maple trees and by riotous gardens. Whatever our sun-loving southern relatives thought, walking was not about discipline or deprivation. It was about pleasure, excitement, discovery.

Carolyn Kelly, the associate editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute, bundles up in polar fleece, flannel, and Smart Wool to walk and run the wintry streets of Beulah, Michigan, where she now lives. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org

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