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Fat Neighborhoods

by Karen Martin

January 5,2006

Aaah, the New Year: time to plan for great days ahead, leaving the mistakes of the past in our dust. The time for rebirth and renewal. The time for Resolutions with a capital R.

One of the most popular Resolutions, of course, is the self-imposed mandate to lose weight. This got me to thinking when I saw the cover of a December magazine, which featured a teaser headline that read, “Is Your Neighborhood Making You Fat?”

The quandary isn’t exactly new, since the related research was published in 2004. The premise: where you live can increase your tendency to gain weight. If your neighborhood is in a suburban area designed to be accessed or traversed by vehicle, you are less likely to have the time in your day to exercise and therefore are more likely to put on the pounds.

A seven-year study called SMARTRAQ (Strategies for Metropolitan Atlanta’s Regional Transportation and Air Quality), conducted by researchers at Georgia Tech, used global-positioning technology to track family members in nearly 8,000 Atlanta-area households. The study demonstrated that every 30 minutes we spend each day in a car increases our risk of being obese by three percent. So an hour’s commute to, from or around the Queen City -- not unheard of if you live near Lake Norman -- would increase the risk by six percent.

The study also showed that people who live in neighborhoods with shops, services and offices within walking distance are seven percent less likely to be obese than people who live in places that are farther from such services and require a car to reach those destinations. The neighborhoods that are most walkable, researchers said, are those built before 1950 or which are located in college towns.

Opponents scoffed at the study, saying that the researchers were inventing a causal relationship. A visiting scholar at the free-market research group American Enterprise Institute, interviewed by Bloomberg News shortly after the findings’ publication, pointed out that the most suburban sprawl took place between 1950 and 1970 -- but that obesity has skyrocketed only in the past 15 years.

As I look around my college town of Davidson, however, I can’t help but think that SMARTRAQ was pretty, well, smart. Even on these cold days of winter, the sidewalks are filled with people running and walking. During nicer weather, streams of cyclists weave down Main Street, blurring the scenery with their brightly-colored jerseys. Many of us are delighted to have the excuse of checking our post office boxes as a reason to take yet another walk past the downtown storefronts.

Those of us who work at Davidson College are fortunate enough to be able to walk to work and home again for lunch -- or to one of a half-dozen restaurants. We’re home by 5:30 so we can spend the twilight hours playing in the yard or on the Village Green with the kids. We cringe when we hear of commuters who don’t get home until 7:00, too tired to do much of anything beyond having dinner.

We are grateful that Davidson is focused on remaining a pedestrian-friendly community. We’re delighted, for instance, that the town recently bought the 200-acre Fisher Farm and already has built walking/biking trails. We cheer each time a traffic calming device is installed, making our foot travels that much easier.

It occurs to me that I don’t know anyone in Davidson who is strikingly overweight. Sure, a few of us -- and I include myself -- could stand to drop a few pounds. But fat? Hardly. Obese? No way.

I realize how fortunate my family is, having found an ideally-situated house in a charming town before property values started heading out of sight. And I appreciate that, for many reasons, people can’t simply pick up and move to a walkable neighborhood.

Perhaps, though, as we’re thinking of how we want the Charlotte metropolitan region to look in the years ahead -- and how healthy we want to be as a community -- we should remember the SMARTRAQ findings and plan our environs a bit more strategically. We may just improve our city’s fitness rankings and our overall quality of life.

It’s something to chew on.

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