04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Stimulating Physical Activity by Building Healthy Neighborhoods

Hiking in Switzerland several years ago, I came across a trail that seemed to dead-end at a farmer's gate. I looked around for a way to avoid the property, but there was none. Instead, the trail continued through the middle of the farm. I walked through the gate, side-stepping some livestock in the way (and side-stepping even more livestock manure!), until I exited the farm through another gate, back out to public property.

What a wonderfully un-American attitude towards property rights. And towards walking. The Swiss have created a culture of walking. I wonder if we can use some of the Obama stimulus money to begin transforming our culture in similar ways.

Compare my experience in Switzerland to the typical visit to the suburbs. No sidewalks on the street. No grocery stores or shops within walking distance. That doesn't promote a culture of physical activity.

The desire to walk, or to exercise in any manner, is not just a function of individual choice. It is also a desire that is strongly influenced by one's surroundings. A study in Salt Lake City recently showed that people who live in older neighborhoods are thinner than those who live in newer neighborhoods, a thinness partly attributable to their greater tendency to walk.

We Americans are unlikely to cede property rights to local fitness enthusiasts any time soon. We won't be opening up our gates to walkers and bikers either.

But because of the Obama stimulus bill, many local governments are looking for shovel-ready construction projects. I hope that in doing so, they look for ways to design neighborhoods that promote physical activity.

The free market, left to its own devices, doesn't necessarily consider what kind of neighborhoods promote our best interests. We are our neighborhoods. Our culture begins at home.

With intelligent regulations, such as thoughtful neighborhood zoning, we can influence our ability and willingness to engage in healthy activities like biking and walking. We owe it to ourselves to create healthy neighborhoods.

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