Is Obesity the Latest ‘Sin’ of Suburban Sprawl?
U.S. suburbs, long "blamed for fostering social isolation and epic traffic jams," stand accused of "another sin" --"making America fat," the Washington Post reports. "Alarmed" by the "rapid rise" of obesity in recent years, the CDC hopes to determine whether suburban design -- which is often not conducive to walking -- plays a "significant role" in America's "spreading paunch." The CDC will soon map obesity data in the nation's "beefiest locales" and undertake an Atlanta project which will outfit 800 individuals with "satellite packs" to study "where, when, why and how much they walk." Dr. Richard Jackson, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, said, "We are coming to the conclusion that land use, urban design and the built environment are much larger factors in public health than people have really appreciated," adding, "When we were kids, most kids walked or biked to school. Now it's 10%. How do we deal with the obesity epidemic when our kids don't get even that fundamental level of exercise?"
Over the past few years, health researchers have blamed suburban sprawl for prompting a "variety of modern ills," including "sharp increases" in childhood asthma and a growing adult dependency on antidepression drugs such as Zoloft. However, the nation's "skyrocketing" obesity rate has "drawn the most intense focus," with health professionals comparing it to an "infectious disease epidemic." Over the past decade, obesity among American adults has increased by nearly 60%, and today one in five American adults is obese, according to the CDC. In addition, the CDC estimates that 11% of American children are "dramatically overweight," a figure that has "nearly doubled" over the past 20 years.
The "fat epidemic" has "no clear cause," but according to Dr. Tom Schmid, director of the Active Community Environment Workgroup in the CDC's
Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, "Our world has just gotten a lot easier to live in. We sit in cars, we don't walk to the store on the corner, we don't walk to the park." Although health experts once called such moderate exercise "irrelevant to good health," recent studies have shown that even 40 minutes of walking per day can provide "significant" health benefits. "Hence the new focus on suburbia, where large-lot homes, congested roads, megamalls and acres of free parking make a stroll to the store about as practical and attractive as a bike lane" on the highway, the Post reports. Citing the stigma attached to walking in a suburban neighborhood, one resident of a Washington, D.C., suburb said, "Here, you feel stupid walking. People will think you're a homeless person." Another resident recounted a recent walk she took in which neighbors stopped to ask her "'What's wrong? What are you doing here? Do you need a ride?'" She said, "Frankly, I was embarrassed. I didn't want to walk any more after that."
Lawrence Frank, a transportation professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said that some new subdivisions hope to remedy the problem by providing recreation trails. "The problem is, people aren't using them because they don't take you somewhere you need to go," Frank said, adding, "The conclusion is that it must be convenient for people to be moderately active." Frank hopes that his new study -- a $4 million CDC project to examine the "travel habits" of 8,000 households in two Atlanta neighborhoods -- will establish a "clear link" between neighborhood design and obesity. During the study, set to begin in March, most participants will maintain a "trip diary," and 800 will wear "global-positioning" devices "so we'll be able to tell if you cross the road for shade. Or because there are more shops. Or because there's something to avoid, like the sidewalk stops," Frank said. The research may "prod" policy makers to encourage "healthy neighborhood design" and "smart-growth initiatives," he added (Montgomery, Washington Post, 1/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.