Rick Wagner • May 2, 2007 at 11:45 AM

KINGSPORT - Permanently changing sedentary habits leading to obesity requires a fundamental shift in local government planning, according to walking guru Mark Fenton.

The quick-talking engineer-turned-exercise proponent is talking about walking trails, sidewalks that go somewhere, mixed-use zoning, bike lanes and marked pedestrian crossings.

Fenton, host of "America's Walking" on PBS, was one of the keynote speakers at Shaping for the Future, sponsored by the Regional Education and Action Coalition for Health and presented by Wellmont Health System. Wednesday's conference was attended by about 250 people.

"People are afraid of change. It's scary," Fenton said during a luncheon speech at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center. "Embracing change is a pipe dream."

He was talking about studies that have shown that programs that encourage people to exercise through rewards and reminders work for the duration of the program but fail in the long run, often ending up with people worse off than in the beginning.

"It's not how do we make these acute changes, it's how do we make them stick," Fenton said.

To improve and maintain health, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise is recommended at least three times a week by the U.S. surgeon general, something about one in five Americans do but should be the goal of everyone, he said.

To meet the surgeon general's recommendation, Fenton said it takes more than just parking in the farthest reaches of the parking lot or using the stairs, although he showed a photo of seldom-used stairs at Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

To reach the recommended 10,000 steps a day, Fenton said it will take individual effort, as well as interpersonal efforts among friends and family, institutional efforts in schools and employers, community efforts like the REACH program, and public policy changes by governments.

He gave the example of lessening U.S. tobacco use, which did not go down appreciably after a 1964 surgeon's general report saying it was unhealthy but started in the 1980s after increased taxes and tobacco-free policies began to take effect.

Fenton urged the audience to think of places where walking, biking and public transit were supplemented by driving, not replaced by it.

They include Paris and other European cities, university cities such as Knoxville, and Washington, D.C.

On the local level, he urged destinations for bike and walking trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian crossings - an inviting setting for pedestrian and bike traffic and safety for bikers and pedestrians.

Jeff Fleming, Kingsport's assistant city manager of development, said the city works with developers on pedestrian-friendly proposals, and "health impact assessments" are becoming part of the planning process.

Fenton said he and Dr. David Katz, a keynote speaker on obesity, on Tuesday found "free range" children walking on the Greenbelt, headed to Salsarita's Fresh Cantina, along with a makeshift path up a bank from the Greenbelt to the Golden Corral.

As an example of a plan that almost works, he cited the Madagascar Coffee Company near MeadowView, near the intersection of MeadowView Parkway and Wilcox Drive. Walking or riding a wheelchair from MeadowView to the business is easy - until it requires either going over a curb or walking in a driveway.

As for land use, he urged small lots for residential allowing for parks, trails and other shared public uses, as well as placement of smaller schools in communities.

He showed a slide of the traffic rush when school got out at Sullivan Central High School near Blountville and said that any savings of consolidating schools through economies of scale are more than lost through increased health care costs of kids unable or unlikely to walk to school.

As an idea to consider, Fenton gave an example of a Walk to Shop program in Knoxville that rewarded walkers or bikers with coupons or discounts from businesses otherwise plagued with parking shortages. Other ideas include a "walking school bus," a group of students accompanied by an adult that picks up students as it goes.

Facing the prospect of today's youth being the first generation that as a whole who may have shorter life expectancies than their parents, he said communities can't afford to not make changes encouraging exercise.

"They should get to be free-range kids like I was," Fenton said.

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