Urban sprawl makes us fatter

A recent review article has once again pointed out that urban sprawl does indeed make us fat. The only problem is, it only seems to account for about 6.5 pounds of extra weight -- not nearly the number of pounds Americans as a whole have been increasingly packing on in recent years.
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A recent review article has once again pointed out that urban sprawl does indeed make us fat. The only problem is, it only seems to account for about 6.5 pounds of extra weight -- not nearly the number of pounds Americans as a whole have been increasingly packing on in recent years.

"The connection between the built environment and obesity is a very powerful one," article author Reid Ewing told SNEWS®. Ewing is professor of urban planning studies at the University of Maryland. However, "the effect is not as significant as that of race, age or education."

The article, in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews published by the American College of Sports Medicine, acknowledged the continuing debate over whether a person's physical environment can affect his or her activity level and weight. But it will take years to validate the findings that may connect sprawl with activity, said Ewing, who is also with the National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research at the University of Maryland.

It finds support for the fact that people who live in sprawling environments, rather than compact and walkable ones, tend to be at least a bit heavier. For example, in cities like New York City or San Francisco, residents must walk more just to get around, while in sprawling suburbs in Missouri or Southern California, walking is nearly impossible even for the simplest errand. Even in some rural areas, it's more difficult to walk despite scenic surroundings.

In sprawling areas, residents and workers don't get as much activity since they don't or can't walk to the office, to lunch or to errands, he said.

"The people in sprawling areas will need to compensate," Ewing said. "Leisure-time walking only accounts for a very small proportion of weight gain. So what is it? It's daily activity."

That means that people who are most at risk and who aren't personally motivated to find a way to move their bodies need to be in an environment where they are forced to walk and not drive, said Ewing. And creating such environments, he said, is also simply good business since a more walkable and therefore livable community attracts business and employees.

"The businesses should lobby for livable and walkable communities because that would bring employees," he said. Being livable and walkable means, for example, mixed use and requiring sidewalks, as well as planning in greenways and trails that can also serve as transportation corridors and recreation venues.

"The health dollars involved should ring some bells and mean dollars and cents to public policy makers," Ewing said. Still, getting communities and planners to move in this direction is "like turning a battle ship."

The citation for Ewing's seven-page review article is: Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev., Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 69-75. The article discusses notions and features of metropolitan sprawl and neighborhood design, as well as the impact of the built environment on active travel, leisure-time activity and obesity, plus nuances of all of the above.

Other research and information, including an article on the health affects of sprawl, are at www.smartgrowthamerica.org.

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