January 20, 2007 / 5:25 AM / 12 years ago

Report calls for "activity-friendly" communities

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Sidewalks, parks and neighborhood stores could be part of the solution to the ever-expanding U.S. waistline, according to a new report.

Writing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers offer a top-10 list of ways to turn sedentary cities and suburbs into “activity-friendly” communities. The point, they say, is to fight obesity by encouraging people to get more incidental activity into their daily lives.

One of the main goals is to give people reasons to get out of their cars. This includes building more sidewalks and intermingling residential and commercial buildings so that more people will walk to the store or the movie theater instead of driving.

“The number of hours we spend in our car everyday detracts from our physical, social and mental health,” Dr. Laura Brennan Ramirez, the report’s lead author, said in a statement.

“Our dependence on the car is overwhelming,” added Brennan Ramirez, an adjunct assistant professor of community health at Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

She and her colleagues arrived at their recommendations through a systematic review of research into the community features that encourage physical activity. They then had a panel of experts pare these features down into a top-10 list.

Among the recommendations:

- Along with better sidewalks and bike lanes, communities should improve mass transportation so that people can walk to the train station, for instance, instead of driving door to door.

- Improve community aesthetics. People will be more likely to walk if their surroundings are clean and offer some sights to see.

- More schools should require gym classes, while workplaces could offer activity incentives, like flexible schedules or on-site gyms.

- Public policies should divert some of the funds that go to highways toward projects like creating roadway bike lanes. Cities should direct funds toward maintaining parks and other recreational areas.

The current anti-walking design of many U.S. communities is a particular problem for older adults and children, Brennan Ramirez noted.

“We haven’t really designed our communities well for older adults, particularly once they get to the point that they can’t drive,” she said. “In addition, given concerns about the soaring childhood obesity rates, not having schools located within the neighborhood is a major problem.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, December 2006.

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