08/21/2012 01:02 pm ET

Better Sidewalks Could Bring Improved Public Health

Most of our serious illnesses and deaths in the U.S. now come from preventable diseases, such as heart disease. But we know what works to improve health.

A new report recommends 43 changes that can make big improvements. To arrive at their recommendations, researchers reviewed more than a thousand studies of public health. Their findings are in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. [Dariush Mozaffarian et al., Population Approaches to Improve Diet, Physical Activity and Smoking Habits]

Some of the suggestions, such as tightening restrictions on smoking, are already paying off in many areas. Others, such as increasing taxes for unhealthful foods, might face stiff opposition, but could pay off large dividends in health savings later.

But some surprisingly simple suggestions could be easiest to institute. Try extending the hours for public parks and schools' recreation facilities. Or improving sidewalks and visual appeal of neighborhoods to make people want to walk, bike or run there more often. The authors of the paper argue that the next step is just for policy makers to put these changes into action.