Smarter Living: Family Health
Our Sprawling Health Problems
Photo: Daniel Ramirez
In the 1970s about 40 percent of our nation's children, walked or biked to school. Yet in the past several decades, walkers have become a rare sight. Only 13 percent of school-age children walk to school today, according to a recent survey. During the same period, rates of obesity and related disorders such as type 2 diabetes in children have increased dramatically. About one out of every three children will grow up to be an obese adult.
It doesn't take a government expert to connect the dots between the reduction in daily exercise and expanding waistlines. In fact, most scientists and health officials now agree that suburban sprawl is linked to the decline of our health, and not just among kids. Adults trapped in cars for long commutes also lack the opportunity to exercise. In other words, the modern American neighborhood is killing us.
The housing developments of the past 70 years or so have been designed for the convenience of machines rather than the needs of humans. We have multilane roads and high speed limits for automobiles, but no sidewalks, bike lanes, crosswalks or pedestrian "walk" signs. Tree-lined lanes feed into wide boulevards that are daunting to cross. Fewer than half of all children live within walking distance of a playground, according to a 2003 Gallup poll. New schools are placed at the edges of communities to accommodate buses and long lines of private automobiles stopping to disgorge kids.
It is no surprise that the number one reason parents give for not having their children walk to school is that the distance is too great. The second most common reason is worries about traffic.
Auto-friendly neighborhoods leave us with few opportunities to build physical activity into our routines. As a result, people of all ages are getting less exercise than they should. Children should be exercising for a full hour each day, according to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Adults should get a minimum of two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One of the most effective ways to get people to increase their activity is to provide living environments that make it easy for them to build physical movement into their daily routine, several studies have shown. When people live in communities where they can walk to shops, schools and jobs—or to public transportation that can get them there—they are more likely to exercise and less likely to be overweight, according to research compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living Research program.
This type of community benefits kids and adults alike. When adults spend less time driving to and from work, they have more time to go to the gym or play tennis with their children. Fewer hours spent commuting means drivers are less fatigued and less rushed, and this cuts down on the risk of accidents. Furthermore, when commuters switch to public transportation instead of using their cars, air quality improves—and not just outdoor air. Recent studies indicate that exhaust pollutants concentrate inside passenger vehicles at unsafe levels. One study of non-smoking Los Angeles residents estimated that up to half of their total diesel PM exposures occur during their 90 minute-per-day average drive time.
Exercise has numerous benefits beyond reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. One study found that spending time outdoors reduced symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many studies have linked adequate exercise and time spent outdoors with improved mental health.
Policymakers are starting to consider how they can foster communities that include opportunities for exercise. The NRDC has long been a supporter of smart growth, by which communities preserve open space while providing acess to public transportation, jobs and recreation. Such communities have the added benefit of preserving farmland, making it easier for residents to obtain locally grown produce.
We need to build new neighborhoods designed around active living, but this won't solve the problem for the millions of people who already live in nonactive communities. The good news is that we can adapt existing neighborhoods to make them more human-friendly by working with town governments to install sidewalks and bike lanes, create public parks and provide crossing guards near schools.
We can also work on changing attitudes about walking and biking. The rising concerns over children's activity levels and weight may convince parents that kids can and should walk to places like schools and friends' houses.
What You Can Do
A "walking school bus" is a good way to encourage your child and his friends to walk to school. Parents take turns gathering the neighborhood children and accompanying them to school. See www.walkingschoolbus.org.
When moving to a new location, choose a community that has walking or biking access to shops, schools, jobs and public transportation.
Support efforts (or start an effort) to pass laws and regulations that promote active living and incorporate these principles into planning and zoning standards.
Petition your community and school leaders for safety improvements such as sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and traffic-calming measures such as speed bumps.
NRDC's Smart Growth initiative provides examples of how communities like yours are promoting active living.
Take the Urban Sprawl Quiz at NRDC's Smarter Cities project.
last revised 1/6/2012