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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sprawling Waistlines

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Obesity is a growing public health concern in the U.S. And now, scientists are looking to the suburbs as a factor in the fat epidemic. By driving almost everywhere, we cut easy opportunities for exercise out of our daily routines. Rich Killingsworth is a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He says that when we design communities without concern for pedestrians or bicyclists, we should not be surprised to see waistlines expanding.

KILLINGSWORTH: Currently we have approximately 61 percent of the adult population as overweight, and one in four is obese. And obesity is defined as approximately being 30 or more on the body mass index scale, which is roughly about 30 pounds or more overweight for the average person.

CURWOOD: How closely is that related to us getting into cars and not walking?

KILLINGSWORTH: Well, one recent study identified a direct correlation between the amount of trips that people took via foot or bicycle and being overweight. And as the amount of trips decreased over the last several decades, there was a correlation with the increase in obesity, as well.

CURWOOD: So, surprise, surprise, the data comes back and says people walk less, they get fatter. What would you then do with that data?

KILLINGSWORTH: Well, we're looking at various data sets from various federal agencies, from the Department of Transportation, Federal Highway, Environmental Protection Agency. And we view these types of studies as opportunities to clearly define how we're building our environments to be supportive of physical activity and improving the public health. Most Americans cannot access destinations of interest with their feet. If we can expand on opportunities for them to be active by accessing transit systems, by accessing stores or schools, we view this as an intervention that can be useful in controlling the epidemic of obesity and also integrating a more physically active lifestyle.

CURWOOD: If I go for a walk in many suburban areas, I'm risking my neck. There's not much of a sidewalk. People are often suspicious of walkers. How do you deal with these issues?

KILLINGSWORTH: You know, that's a perception that most Americans have, is that when they see someone walking the first thing that comes in mind is that the individual is either poor, they don't belong to the community, they're looking for trouble. That's an unfortunate perception.. And think about when we were growing up, just walking through the communities that we lived in. Many people walked. Many people engaged those environments. And that's how we come to know our community. Because we can't really pick up issues or challenges that are going on in a community when we drive through them at 40 and 50 miles an hour.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the initiatives you have going across the country to inspire people to put more activity into their days and -- I think you have a program called Walk to School and others.

KILLINGSWORTH: Yes, it's a national intervention that was disseminated in August. Less than ten percent of our children nationally are walking or bicycling to school, and I see that as a huge societal issue. California is the first, and only, state, still, that has legislation for safe routes to school programs. Many other states are following that path, designing legislation in which they can access transportation funding to build a safe infrastructure for children to do so. The opportunity through Kids Walk is that it's built upon many other concepts. Not only does it focus on physical activity, but it focuses on children being decision-makers in their community to identify what's wrong with their community. Groups of children walking together, supervised by adults, put eyes on the streets, which prevents crime. And, also, the presence of people calms traffic and it makes the environment safer for everyone.

CURWOOD: Suppose you are able to double the number of kids that walk to school in America. How much gasoline would you save? How much pollution would you save? How many pounds would come off of people's middles if you did that?

KILLINGSWORTH: It's a very good question, and one that we need to research because we just don't know at what level we're going to impact the traffic environment from this intervention. We do know that we will integrate more physical activity into their lives to control their weight. Because the weight issue is not only a problem for an adult, it's also a problem for children, as well. Because one in four of every children is overweight.

KILLINGSWORTH: Rich Killingsworth is a health scientist with the Active Community Environments Initiative at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Thanks for talking with me today.

KILLINGSWORTH: Thank you very much, Steve.

Music up and under: Tin Hat Trio, "Fire of Ada")



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