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Monday, June 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist
The most obvious idea is lots more physical exercise getting everyone off their duffs, starting with kids whose school gym hours have been scrubbed out by local budget crises and academic pressures. Then there's the companion pressure to curtail junk foods.
We're also seeing a new push to redesign our communities to get people out of their cars more often. And now we're hearing a demand for "complete streets." U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recently joined that course, suggesting "every road being built you should be able to walk on it or ride a bike."
With 65 percent of the American people now overweight, 31 percent obese, the obvious answer is that we need to start the reform measures yesterday.
Of course some people disagree, arguing that weight is purely a personal issue. Last week, one of them called into Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's radio program. This woman, identified as "Maria from Cabot," didn't like Huckabee's recently announced Healthy Arkansas Initiative and its focus on children.
"I don't think it's the state's business to get into the health concerns of a child," she said. "If your kid's fat, it's your responsibility to take care of it."
Maria couldn't have hit a better target than Huckabee, who's lost 105 pounds since a diabetes diagnosis last year. He agreed that "people have a right to do dumb things," indeed to be overweight or unhealthy.
But, said the governor, consider the example of a 7-year-old child with an obesity-rated body mass index of 30 or above. That child, he suggested, will likely be a Type II diabetic by his or her early teens and could well suffer a heart attack in the late 20s, be on full dialysis by the late 30s and go blind while in the 40s. "We're going to be paying an enormous amount of tax money to help subsidize his or her health issues," said Huckabee.
Arkansas is the only state to require all its 450,000 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, to have their height and weight measured to determine body mass index. Last week the first figures were released at the Time magazine/ABC News summit on obesity in Williamsburg, Va. They suggest childhood obesity in America may be a lot worse than previously thought. Forty percent of Arkansas' school children are overweight. Nearly one in four is obese.
The signal is unmistakable. Overweight conditions threaten both our health and the long-term fiscal stability of governments, our payers of last resort. Officials need to snap to attention. And it's no mystery how to start. Yank the junk food and sugar-laden drink dispensers out of school buildings by the time they reopen this fall. Reinstitute gym classes daily, in all schools.
Encourage kids to walk or cycle to school by shifting local traffic plans to emphasize better sidewalks, bikeways and crossings.
But it's not just the kids. Every road-building plan should be revamped for "complete streets." And every local government should aim to locate shops, restaurants and businesses within walking distances of people's home.
A fresh study, tracking the daily travel patterns, weight and neighborhood characteristics of 10,858 Atlanta region residents, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, proves precisely why. People who live in easy walking distance of shops and businesses do walk or bike more. An average white male living in a compact community with nearby shops and services weighs 10 pounds less than his counterpart living in a low-density, residential subdivision.
Why? The more time people spend in cars each day, notes Lawrence Frank, author of the study, the more likely they are to be obese.
The message to city planners and zoning boards couldn't be more compelling: Mix up uses. Ditch single-use zoning. Go for grid systems; discourage cul-de-sac-like barriers. Recreate balanced communities; aim for at least a modest amount of density. In Atlanta's case, Frank found, tripling the number of shops and other businesses near homes would have the same effect on obesity levels as magically making everyone in the region five years younger.
Obesity won't recede without a strong mix of countermeasures. We know logical first steps. Waiting has become unthinkable.
Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004, Washington Post Writers Group
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