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Urban environment should encourage active living

Urban environment should encourage active living
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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2012

It's often been said that activity is the best medicine, and with good reason.

Physical activity reduces the risk of premature death, and the risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes. Physical activity also improves mental health and overall quality of life. It is estimated that more than half of Canadian adults are not as active as they should be, making physical inactivity the most common modifiable risk factor for chronic disease.

Fortunately, it doesn't take much to include more physical activity in your daily routine. Significant health benefits can be obtained by including even a moderate amount of physical activity (e.g., 30 minutes of brisk walking - which could be three separate 10 minute walks) on most, if not all, days of the week. Like many lifestyle habits, becoming more active is best accomplished by making small changes in your daily routine that work over the long term.

There are many reasons why Canadians are not as active as they should be, ranging from busy work schedules to spending too much time in front of the television or computer. But there is one factor related to our collective inactivity that often gets overlooked: our built environment.

The majority of all factors influencing our health are outside of the healthcare system, and physical activity is no exception. Our built environments shape the way we live, and the environments we are living in now do not encourage us to be active.

Our cities are largely designed to separate us from opportunities to be active. We often drive to work, school, recreation events and the grocery store, instead of walking or taking public transportation. We take the elevator instead of the stairs. And we spend much of the day sitting. As a result, we miss opportunities to be more active. And these missed opportunities add up. Consider these facts:

  • The number of students who walk or bike to school declined from 42 per cent in 1969 to 13 per cent in 2001.
  • Living in a neighbourhood near shops and businesses within walking distance decreases your risk of obesity by 35 per cent.
  • Transit users are three times more likely to meet the daily minimum of recommended physical activity.

Fortunately, the connection between urban planning and public health is increasingly being made. In recent years, the field of city planning has emphasized the importance of communities where people can live, work and play without necessarily having to use a car to get around. The City of Winnipeg's "Complete Communities" strategy is an example of this kind of thinking. It plans for mixeduse corridors (think of parts of Corydon Avenue or Marion Street) and centres (think of downtown Transcona or Osborne Village) that mix residential, retail, recreation and workplaces.

And the benefits are clear. Communities that emphasize active transportation - walking, biking or using public transit - experience significant health benefits. By making it easier for people to get around and be active at the same time, we make it easier for everyone to integrate more physical activity into their daily routine. That's no small thing. Built environments that promote active living improve our collective physical and mental health, and enhance our quality of life.

Planning principles that promote active living can be applied in any community. It's all about looking for ways to make it easier to integrate active living into your daily routine. Here are a few public policies that can help promote healthier lifestyles where you live:

  • Decrease residential speed limits to make the streets safer for walking and biking.
  • Create bike and walking routes, and public transportation systems, that are accessible and convenient.
  • Develop residential neighbourhoods that have a mix of retail and commercial buildings, and facilitate the use of active forms of transportation.

The bottom line here is clear: You can improve your own health by making small changes in your daily routine that incorporate more physical activity. At the same time, you can also talk with others in your community about how to create built environments that make healthy choices the easy choices. In doing so, you make it easier for yourself, and those around you, to become more active - and have better health as a result.

Dr. Michael Routledge is a Medical Officer of Health with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: January / February 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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