Building Healthy Communities
By Elizabeth O. Hurst
mericans are less physically active than they once were, and the nation is paying a serious price in public health. When Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) began building rail-trails in 1986, the adult obesity rate in the United States was less than 10 percent. Since then, the rate has skyrocketed to more than 35 percent. During the same 25-year time period, the childhood obesity rate has tripled to more than 30 percent.
Obesity has been linked to incidence of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis, cancer, liver and gallbladder disease, mental health problems, and other serious health conditions. And it's tough to combat, largely because we've designed physical activity right out of our communities.
Post-World War II zoning laws are partly responsible for creating barriers to physical activity in everyday life. Restrictive building policies adopted in the mid 20th century erected a divide between residential and commercial developments, effectively discouraging trips by bike, foot and public transportation. The policies also engendered sprawl, leading to massive, far-flung developments where cars were the only way to get around.
In addition to having fewer opportunities for physical activity, Americans during the past several decades have developed a tendency to overeat and eat less well. Portion sizes have grown, dining out—often at fast-food restaurants serving low-cost meals high in saturated fat and calories, and few fresh selections—has increased, and so has consumption of processed foods. In some rural and urban areas, access to grocery stores that stock fresh, affordable food is limited, resulting in "food deserts." On top of that, the most healthful foods are often the most expensive in grocery stores, an added obstacle to nutritious eating for economically strapped populations.
Changing entrenched patterns of physical inactivity is an enormous, daunting task. Yet in the past decade, a collaborative effort by policymakers, educators and businesses, as well as advocacy groups such as Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), has begun to turn the tide.
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