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No, This Is Why We're Fat!

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The Daily Beast Gets It Wrong. Disregarding the Role of Community Design in the Fight Against Obesity is Short Sighted and Dangerous.

Yesterday over at the Daily Beast, Gray Taubes took to task the new HBO documentary, The Weight of the Nation. The four-part HBO series emphasizes the role of diet and exercise in reducing our national obesity epidemic. Taubes refers to this as tired advice, and goes on to make the argument willpower and healthy habits will not fix obesity, rather we must have a deeper understanding of the foods we eat, especially sugar.

In the process of making his case, Taubes makes the following statement:

By institutionalizing this advice as public-health policy, we waste enormous amounts of money and effort on programs that might make communities nicer places to live -- building parks and making green markets available -- but that we have little reason to believe will make anyone thinner.

Waste of money? Dismissing the role of community design in the fight against obesity is deeply irresponsible. Money spent making communities healthier is not wasted, nor does it simply result in a few parks here and there. If we truly want to combat obesity in this country, we must continue to invest our resources in creating viable alternatives to the auto-dependent lifestyle gripping the American middle class. We must continue to invest in and support the growth of walkable mixed-use communities and to retrofit our sprawling suburbs into healthier places to live.

While yes, we really do need to understand sugar's impact in our diet; a healthy lifestyle must include exercise. The only form of exercise that is sustainable in the long term is that which is integrated into our daily routines. Of course a few parks aren't going to make people thinner. Who has the time or energy to make it to the park at the end of a long commute?

When communities are designed in such a way that a dinner out, coffee with a friend, a trip to the playground, or a quick trip to the drug store are a few blocks (along a sidewalk) from homes, we easily and naturally integrate walking into our daily routine.

Take this example. In 1969, approximately half of all students walked or rode their bike to school, according to the Department of Transportation. Today, that figure is down below 15 percent, with over half of all students arriving by private automobile and another 25 percent taking the bus. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in the last 30 years, the number of overweight children in the United States has tripled, from five percent to 15 percent. The CDC cites a direct correlation between the reduction in children walking and biking to school and the increase in weight.

Here's the problem, most community designs don't provide safe walking routes to school. Either the distance between the home and school is too great or it is not safe to walk (no sidewalks) or not safe to cross streets. To combat this problem, the CDC has started a nationwide program to support and encourage the creation of safe routes to school for children to walk and bike. This investment is not wasted.

The benefits of walkable communities extend beyond combating obesity. Walkable communities consistently hold value longer than their auto-dependent counterparts. Walkable communities take cars off the road, which not only is great for the environment and air quality, but also your state of mind and your pocketbook.

Yes, we need to examine what is in our food. In parallel though, let's truly examine and study the role of commuting on our overall health, not just body weight but also asthma, diabetes, heart disease, not to mention our mental health, as well as the health of our fragile eco-system.

What can you do?

Support local initiatives: Nationwide communities are working to support healthier habits. Make Healthy Happen Miami is an organization that supports healthy lifestyle alternatives at work, school and home.

Get out and ride: May is National Bike Month. Tomorrow, May 9th is National Bike to School Day. Followed on May 18th with National Bike to Work Day.

Get out and walk: Thirty minutes of walking daily may not work as a standalone solution to obesity, but it is an important component in combating the problem. If you were a fan of The West Wing You'll enjoy their recent reunion video highlighting the many benefits of walking.

Join the CNU: The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the leading organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions. This week in West Palm Beach, the CNU will hold it's 20th annual meeting (May 9-12). While the group is largely a professional organization, materials are surprisingly accessible to people from all walks of life.

What do you think? Would you walk more if your community design offered you something to walk to? Would you rather commute by car or by foot? Is money spent making cities more walkable a valuable asset or wasted investment?