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Active living means housing choices that get people moving everyday

As First Lady Michelle Obama’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity gets to work identifying policy changes and recommendations for federal agencies, the impact of city design on childrens’ health is one of the first places they ought to look.

Current laws and incentives drive where schools, grocery stores, health centers, and parks are located – and whether they are safely accessible by walking or biking. An Atlanta, Georgia study found that each quartile increase of land-use mix — an attribute of neighborhoods that encourages walking — was associated with a 12 percent reduction in the likelihood of obesity.

Building new communities that are less car dependent and making existing communities more efficient are two strategies to make active living more achievable for adults and children alike. Higher land-use mix encourages more everyday active living, increases travel options and reduces congestion. Other measures like higher residential density, smaller street blocks, and access to sidewalks, also translate to increased walking. Conversely, sprawl that limits connectivity and lengthens the distance between destinations has been associated with less physical activity and higher obesity rates in adults, as well as higher automobile passenger and pedestrian fatality rates.

Compact, mixed-use developments near near destinations and accessible by biking and walking make active living for children easier and more routine. Here’s how:

  • The proximity of neighborhood shops to residences has been shown to increase the number of trips on foot or by bicycle.  And people who live in neighborhoods with a mix of shops and businesses within easy walking distance have a 35 percent lower risk of obesity.
  • A national study of 448 metropolitan counties found that people living in compact, higher-density counties walk more, weigh less and are less likely to be obese or have hypertension than people living in more sprawling counties.
  • People in more compact metropolitan areas suffer from significantly fewer chronic medical conditions than their counterparts in more sprawling regions.

In sum, neighborhood and community designs that create opportunities to get out and be physically active during the course of the day is a great step for kids – and an important goal if we are serious about reducing obesity.