Tuesday, April 1, 2008


If, by chance, you made it through yesterday's post, you may be wondering what that has to do with anything. I am studying exercise science, why am I studying principles of sprawl and city planning? I will explain, again in a long, drawn out, not so exciting, academic way.

So why does it matter if a city is sprawling? More auto traffic yields more air pollution, that's true. More air pollution yields more cardiovascular disease, lung disease and cancers. That's not good. Honestly, I'm interested in air quality and the health benefits of clean air, but that's not what I'm studying. More auto traffic means that fewer people are using active means of transportation. This increases sedentary behavior and leads to diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle, mainly cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis.

There it is, the obvious link between city planning/sprawl and exercise, that's why I'm studying it. Except if you really get into the research that has been done in the area, it just doesn't hold water. The first study I read on this topic was crudely conducted, but used a whole lot of people (hundreds of thousands). The researchers determined the walkability of the communities where the people lived and then correlated it with other information that they had about the people. It turns out that people who live in 'walkable' areas are physically active for 15 more minutes than those people who don't live in walkable communities. Oh, that's 15 more minutes every month. That adjusts down to right about 30 seconds a day. Of course it was significantly different because there were hundreds of thousands of subjects, but that has absolutely no physiological significance. Thirty seconds of exercise is not enough to see any effect.

Studies certainly exist that show that as areas are more 'walkable' people tend to be more physically active. On the contrary, there are also numerous studies that show that active people are more likely to choose to live in walkable areas. In the end, it is not the city design that leads people to exercise, it is that active people choose to live in neighborhoods designed to be walkable.

I recently corresponded with someone who did her dissertation on changing an environment and evaluating the change in activity. After making the environment more 'walkable' people were significantly less physically active than before the change to the environment.

The data is sort of mixed, but there are a lot of people questioning if the design of a city has any effect on the activity levels of the people in the community. So why are we so worried about making these design changes? If it is going to cost money to make roads accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians, but people aren't going to become more active, what's the use? We may have better odds by spending the money on local recreation centers so that everyone in the community can drive to the rec center and exercise and then drive home. I don't think people would do that either.

The problem isn't so much with urban design as it is with a lazy population. People don't like doing more than they need to. People don't like to 'exercise' and people like the convenience that comes with a car nearby amenities. And if their body goes to pot, they go to the doctor and he will prescribe drugs to 'solve' the problem. When the air is no longer breathable and it's too hot to grow things we will go to the scientists and they will create a magic pill that will make it all better. (Sorry, that was a bitter paragraph not supported by anything substantial, I'll move back to a reasonable line of thinking.)

We still need walkable communities. Not because it is going to make people walk, because I don't think that it will. We need the infrastructure available to make walking and cycling attractive so that people can choose to walk if they so desire. I believe that as gas prices continue to increase, there is going to be an increased demand on bicycles for transportation. I have already seen it. Where people used to laugh at me for riding my bike everywhere, now people are saying, "You really haven't bought gas since January?"--- No, I haven't. Gas prices really aren't that high if you don't buy it. We need bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure ready for when demand increases, and I have no doubt that it will.

The latter part of this week I'll be studying statistics. We can all hope that I don't have an entire post on statistics, but just maybe I'll study my stats on my blog as well.


Emily Allan Wood said...

i think the key to having people with active lifestyles is to give them the tools to do so (like your planned communities), and to get society at large to make it cool to be fit just like it suddenly became cool to drive big SUV's.

When it comes to my willingness to exercise, its simply a matter of time and energy levels. Thats it. I assume it is the same for most others.

I honestly believe that if people were given time off work during the prime energy filled hours of the day so they could get exercise, they would do it.

wouldn't it be smart for companies to pay their employees to work out for an hour a day? It would cut back on fatigue at work, probably boost productivity, and cut back on medical costs for health insurance.

Why can't we convince companies to make a move like this??? I think the American attitude towards work and play and leisure and pleasure would have to change before large amounts of people started demanding time during the day to work out.

Phil said...

So after seeing all these posts...can you write a post about what would be ideal? How should we build our communities?