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A New Normal

Clam seller in Mulberry Bend, NYC. Around 1900. The photo has absolutely nothing to do with this article, but I like it anyway.

I’ve been biking or walking to work for about two weeks.  While I didn’t consider myself overweight, I would say that I was approaching an unhealthy-ish weight due to a sedentary lifestyle and Starbucks Mochas. Early in 2010 I started a gym membership and began running and weight training a few times a week.  Going to the gym takes a lot of will power for me, and there would be weeks where I wouldn’t go at all because I didn’t have the time (or wasn’t willing to make the time).

Having exercise  ingrained in my daily schedule makes me push myself everyday. It’s harder to make excuses not to do it. It sounds like a cop-out, but I think most people would rather get their exercise during the normal course of their day rather than schedule hour long blocks in an already busy schedule.

I feel healthier, lost some weight, and actually look forward to my commute. What people don’t tell you is that after college, you become a lot more sedentary and it becomes really really easy to get into the habit of not doing any physical activity. This is especially true if you have an office job, drive to work, and barely walk 500 feet during the course of the day (like I did).  If you eat just three square meals a day but sit at a desk all day, you will probably gain a couple of pounds a year. A new normal is needed where exercise is part of our everyday routine instead of something added on when we have time.

This is only partly about will power, though. Many of my friends live in places where it would be nearly impossible to walk, bike or take transit.  There are huge public health benefits in designing places which allow for incidental exercise. Being able to walk down the street for a gallon of milk or to a park a few blocks away makes a big difference when multiplied by millions of people over the course of decades. Likewise, hoping in a car for each and every trip has an equally large impact over the course of a lifetime.

Australia has done a lot of research showing the link between incidental exercise and health outcomes.

“Physical activity must be maintained throughout life. Current, continuing, adequate exercise, rather than a history of youthful or hereditary vigour and athleticism is protective against coronary heart disease in all age ranges.” (Roberts, Owen, Lumb, MacDougall, 1996. http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/ped_bike/docs/cyhealth.pdf

Other research supports the correlation between accessible neighborhood design and physical activity:

“Both cross-sectional and quasi-longitudinal analyses provided evidence of a causal impact of neighborhood design. Improving physical activity options, aesthetic qualities, and social environment may increase physical activity. Critical limitations included self-report measures of physical activity, lack of measures of duration and intensity of neighborhood physical activity, lack of measures of total physical activity, and limited measures of preferences related to physical activity.”  Susan L. Handy, Xinyu Cao, Patricia L. Mokhtarian (2008)

I’m able to live without a car partly because my city was designed and built before cars dominated our infrastructure. With struggling housing starts and stalled development projects, this is a good time to re-adapt suburbs to give suburbanites the options that people in bigger cities have. A new normal, where travel options and accessible neighborhood designs are the standard instead of add-ons, is needed.  Maybe this is an argument for stronger planning policy at the national level.  Something to consider in a future post…

**7/14/10 update: The New York Times has an article about this very issue at:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/14/phys-ed-the-men-who-stare-at-screens/

**7/26/10 update: Next American City has an article which looks at the correlation between obesity rates and urban, walkable cities.  In a nut shell; there is no correlation. Poverty and access to healthy foods plays a much larger role in determining obesity rates.