Obesity Epidemic Curtailed by Walking Audits? We Think So.
Obesity is a national epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is on the brink of overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death in America. Although it seems that we are fighting a losing battle, the fact is, obesity is a relatively preventable disease. With a few creative changes to the physical environment – in particular, the walking environment– it is quite possible to see obesity rates stabilize and eventually begin to diminish.
How can we change the physical environment?
Fortunately in the spring of 2010, King County Public Health was awarded a Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant enabling local school districts and community-based organizations to improve nutrition and physical activity in King County. Funds from this grant have made it possible for Feet First to partner with the Bicycle Alliance of Washington to conduct walking audits at nine elementary schools throughout King County. During these organized ‘walking tours’ around an elementary school, we engage parents, students, school officials, and community members in an effort to understand the barriers that prevent children from walking to school as well as highlight potential solutions to these problems. In the end, we provide the school with a detailed report that includes recommendations to for fixing safety concerns along with a walking map to encourage more students to walk to school, which will help slow the obesity epidemic in King County.
Do organizations heed our recommendations?
In the past, our walking audit recommendations have had measurable results. For example, back in November of 2008 we completed this walking audit for the Lummi Safe Streets Program. Our recommendations were used by tribal leaders to address pedestrian safety issues along two main roads making these areas much safer and pedestrian friendly. Likewise, in August 2009 we conducted a walking audit at John Muir Elementary school in Seattle. Our recommendations to create a safer walking environment for students were implemented by the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Does a little extra walking really do a number on obesity rates?
Interestingly enough, using the physical environment to help burn calories has been taking place for years in New York City. According to urban designer and architect Jack L. Robbins, people who live in the City live 1.5 years longer than the rest of the country. Some of this longevity may be attributed to the fact that New Yorkers walk more than other Americans. Instead of scheduling a daily trip to the gym, folks who live in New York get their exercise by living in a place that celebrates walking. Robbins points out two studies supporting his case:
A 1997 study showed that men who climb 20-34 flights of stairs per week have a 20 percent lower risk of stroke or death from other cardiovascular causes.
A 2004 study in Atlanta showed that men living in more suburban, purely residential neighborhoods were on average 10 pounds heavier than the same demographic who lived in more urban, mixed-use areas.
Rather than imploring Americans to eat healthy and exercise daily, Robbins describes a city planning movement toward what he calls Active Design – the idea that cities can be designed to encourage more exercise. He points out that perhaps an urban lifestyle (or at least a lifestyle that creates daily opportunities for exercise) is one step towards slowing the obesity epidemic in our country.
So, Walking Audits Promote Active Design?
We think they do. When we go out to conduct walking audits we consider ourselves a major player in promoting active lives for folks who might not put exercise at the top of their daily to-do list. By giving our recommendations to schools and communities, we are reminding people that the obesity epidemic is indeed – to use the words of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention – a “winnable battle” that, with some creativity and good public policy, can be won.
To learn more about a walking audit, join us on March 17 at Thorndyke Elementary School in Tukwila.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joe_13 under the Creative Commons license.