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Canaries in the Coal Mine

Dear Friend of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy,

"A community can be judged by the health of its young and its old."

If that's not a famous quotation, it should be. America's children and their grandparents are the "canaries in the coal mine" of America's communities—their health and well-being is a good indicator of what lies in store for the rest of us.

The health of our children has received increasing attention with the explosion of childhood obesity in America. Ponder these statistics:

  • In 1969, 50 percent of children walked or cycled to school. Today, less than 15 percent do.
  • In 1971, four percent of children 6 to 11 years old were overweight. In 2002, 16 percent were.

With this decline in physical activity and increase in obesity, we may be raising the first generation of children who won't live as long as their parents.

We also face serious threats to the health and wellness of our nation's grandparents. Consider this:

  • America had 35 million people aged 65-plus in 2000, and that population is expected to double by 2030.
  • More than 60 percent of older adults are inactive.

Will this growing population of senior citizens enjoy a high quality of life in their later years? Or will more than half of them suffer the physical infirmities associated with aging and inactivity?

At the heart of the health challenges facing both young and old is one simple truth: We have designed our communities around the automobile. In too many places, we have made it unsafe for children to bicycle or for seniors to walk. Therefore, to protect the long-term health of all of us, we must ensure that the young and old—our "canaries"—have access to safe and pleasant places to be physically active.

That's where rail-trails come in. Get out on a trail on a warm summer day and you'll find children, their parents and their grandparents enjoying a leisurely walk or an exhilarating bike ride. Whether you're under 16, over 60 or somewhere in between, there is no better tonic for what ails you.

See you on the trail!

Keith Laughlin

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Duke Ellington Building
2121 Ward Ct., NW
5th Floor
Washington, DC 20037