Focusing on obesity in the war on weight may be missing the real front in creating healthier people and communities.
For Mark Fenton, a national advocate of walking, designing communities that promote active living is key. And the benefits extend to healthier children, lower health care costs and an improved business climate.
Change, Fenton said, will be incremental to transform sedentary lives in America's car culture, but it can happen. On Wednesday, Fenton and area officials will take part in a walking tour of Brainerd to look at how well the community is designed for walking and biking and ways it might improve.
The event will be hosted by the Initiative Foundation and comes a day before the foundation's community and health conference in St. Cloud, where Fenton will speak. Fenton hosts "America's Walking," a fitness, travel and lifestyle series on PBS. Among many published works, he is author of "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness."
Frieda Lampa, Brainerd, walked past the Brainerd Post Office on a blustery Friday. Improving a community's design to encourage pedestrian access is one of the goals behind a walking tour of Brainerd.
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Brainerd Dispatch/ Renee Richardson
A highway bypass around a downtown, failure to include sidewalks or trails to connect areas and moving schools to the edge of cities all contribute to what Fenton calls, "death by a thousand pinpricks."
Driven by the health benefits, Fenton said his goal is to build communities that foster more routine physical activity. In 2005, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine noted rising obesity rates mean a lot more than unflattering waistlines. The report, according to a team of scientists supported in part by the National Institute on Aging, found life expectancy for the average American could decline by as much as five years without aggressive efforts to combat obesity. Researchers reported this could be the first sustained drop in life expectancy for Americans in the modern era.
But there is a chance to turn the tide, Fenton said.
With tight budgets and a slow economy, cost may be a factor. But Fenton points to rising health care costs, more employee sick days and more diseases of a sedentary lifestyle, including diabetes.
"What is the cost of not doing it?" he said.
Three out of four people are not going to the gym for the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Fenton said that number hasn't changed in the last 20 years, which begs for a different approach to increase the fitness of Americans.
"If we aren't going to get people to go to the gym more, maybe we have to build it into lives in a convenient way," he said.
Benefits of getting people out of the car include basic quality of life, he said, adding America's culture of convenience can change. He cited positive examples of Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., Burlington, Vt. and Madison, Wis.
Building and connecting trails won't mean everyone will suddenly leave their TV and couch for outdoor recreation, but Fenton said some people will get out more. And that's a start.
The change likely will require government to rethink zoning rules that often give little thought to the pedestrian and segregate people from where they live, work and shop.
"At some point it's going to take gutty decisions that are maybe a little unconventional sounding at first," Fenton said.
Mixed land use, connecting trails, multiple transit options and site design are all elements in discussion of creating an environment that encourages people to get out of their cars. If those changes aren't made, Fenton said the future is predictable.
"To some degree, we die by our own sword."
An advocate of the benefits of walking, Fenton was a member of the U.S. national racewalking team. With bachelor's and master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fenton's studies included the biomechanics of walking. He worked as a manager of research engineering at Reebok for three years.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.
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