Thursday, July 31, 2008

suburban life is fattening

Not that we didn't know this already, but recent research confirms this idea. An article on WebMd notes: "People in the study who lived in the most walkable neighborhoods weighed an average of 8 pounds less than people who lived in the least walkable areas." Dead end streets that lead nowhere -- who would have thought that they were unhealthy? (/sarcasm) Suburbs are places that have stop signs solely to slow people down and maybe to give a better indication of the right-of-way of traffic. Kids might play in the streets too, but adults spend their time in a commute to or from work and then find themselves too far away from anyplace where they could exercise. In my own time in suburbs, I rarely see people running or riding a bike on the sidewalks. Occasionally there are people taking a walk after dinner or something, but the most usage the sidewalks get is when kids walk on them when cars are driving down the streets. Making matters worse is that suburbs are often simply residential areas that don't have nearby restaurants or stores that people can frequent simply by walking. When I lived in the city I walked to some many nearby stores. Now I live in a small town (without sidewalks, for the most part) and can't walk anyway. It's upsetting to have to depend on my car to get anywhere -- even places that are a (hypothetical) short walk away.

As a counterpoint, suburbs don't have to be fattening. I've seen reports of where neighborhoods are building more sidewalks or bike paths so that people can exercise. Easy access to parks with loops for jogging and fields for kids (and older kids) to play soccer, football, or baseball are necessary. Let's not forget basketball and tennis courts either. Suburbs may be able to provide these amenities but another problem is not the suburb itself. In fact, suburbs may have the ability to provide greater opportunities to exercise should they invest in them. One, the air is probably cleaner than the nearby city since the factories are farther away. Two, in newer suburbs there are still fields and rural zones that allow for the creation of nice nature parks and trails. Given the higher tax base of suburbs compared to cities, they may have the funds to make this investment.

One problem that has nothing to do with the resources are the people who live there. By this, I mean to refer to the lifestyle of its residents. If the suburb in question is fairly affluent, its residents work hard and may not have time to dedicate to exercise, especially when they spend more time in traffic due to their longer commute to a job in the city. This aspect is perhaps the most negative influence of the suburb on modern life: it affects the environment with the creation of greenhouse gasses (especially since it probably doesn't have mass transit or its residents fail to take advantage of it where it does exist) besides the obesity or "excess baggage" of its residents.

The solution may be on the horizon: high gas prices have people reevaluating their priorities -- people are moving, driving more fuel efficient cars, rethinking mass transit, etc. and the overall population shift has had jobs move outside the city to the suburbs as well, making a shorter commute for those workers (of course, then there are people who have the opposite commute from the city to their job in the suburb; I don't know how common this is but I have met people with simliar commutes).

But in the opposite direction, obesity continues to rise in the US. I though I saw a headline that said that nearly every American will be obese at some point in the future. I think the opposite is happening: America is coming to be dividing into two groups, the fit and the fat. And the latter group will continue to grow unless several changes are made including: access to exercise, declining prices of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and the promotion of overall healthy lifestyles. A byproduct of rising obesity rates is that fit people are considered "skinny" when they are actually healthy. This creates misperceptions as to what a "healthy" (by this, I mean someone with a reasonable BMI, an imperfect but apparently worthwhile indicator of a healthy weight) person looks like. For the record, I'm a few pounds over a healthy BMI, but I run races and do reasonably well in half marathons, where one finds a good turnout (always in the top 10% overall, recently as high as just outside the top 4% -- and I'm a few pounds overweight, according the the BMI index).

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