Fitness guru says public spaces should promote active lifestyle

J. H. Osborne • May 5, 2007 at 11:57 AM

KINGSPORT - It doesn't take million-dollar projects to start making public spaces more conducive to an active lifestyle, which will in turn promote better public health.

And something needs to be done to get more Americans to be more active in communities nationwide, Mark Fenton - fitness author, walking champion and host of the PBS television series "America's Walking" - said at a health care conference last week at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center.

"We need communities where people are intrinsically more active," Fenton said.

He cited several key factors that make public spaces more inviting to bicycles and pedestrians, including: safety; attractiveness of the environment; and connectivity - in other words, how easy it is to walk or ride your bike from one area to another.

Those things need to be considered during planning and development phases by multiple stakeholders, Fenton said, and local governments can be proactive by requiring new developments to include components to promote active living.

It doesn't have to be a million-dollar trail, Fenton said. It can begin with smaller projects like resetting traffic-light sensors to recognize when a bicycle is waiting at an intersection - or installing crosswalk warning signs that count down the number of seconds before a traffic light changes.

Among the most important development decisions to be made in the next 20 years, he said, are those about where to put schools - keeping in mind ways to encourage active living by the nation's youth.

Active Living by Design is a national program of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is based at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Fenton said many useful resources are available online for government officials and community leaders at www.activelivingbydesign.org.

He described the "Five P" approach for groups who want to pursue an active living by design approach for their community. The "Five P's" (along with Fenton's "editorial" comments) are:

• Preparation ("Small is beautiful.")

• Promotion ("Make partners, make noise.")

• Programs

• Projects ("Show me the money.")

• Policies ("Whose job is it anyway?")

Fenton said groups that come together for community planning often cast too big a net in membership during earlier phases and the process can get bogged down and be unproductive.

He suggested a limited group - planning staffs, biking and walking advocates, developers, elected officials, health officials and transportation staff - get together first to agree on a "vision."

Ideally, the people chosen to sit on that group are then only one phone call away from all the other stakeholders, Fenton said.

The goal of completing the Five P's is increased physical activity. The long-term results: lower chronic disease rates; lower congestion/pollution; stronger local economies; safer streets and more liveable communities.

According to the Web site www.activelivingresearch.org:

• Nearly one in three Americans is obese.

• Estimated costs of physical inactivity in the United States are $37.2 billion annually.

• 74 percent of Americans are not regularly physically active and 28 percent of those do not get any physical activity at all.

• Between 1977 and 1995 the number of trips the average American adult took on foot each year dropped 21 percent.

• Regular physical activity reduces the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure and colon or breast cancer.

• Regular physical activity lowers blood pressure, helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, and promotes psychological well-being.

• Studies show people are less willing to walk in their neighborhoods when they have to deal with stresses like traffic congestion, noise and the threat of violence.

• Communities that develop pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure with links to destinations of interest have more physically active residents.

• Communities that build bicycling and walking trails, support exercise programs, and provide public areas such as parks and sidewalks can boost the physical activity levels of residents.

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