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Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” report says walking and biking key to healthier kids

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Earlier this month, we highlighted two reports on the integral link between health and transportation. First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent Let’s Move report on childhood obesity goes one step further — endorsing a new surface transportation bill that encourages more walking and biking.

Noting the pivotal impact transportation options and the built environment have on health and physical activity, Transportation for America encouraged First Lady Obama to include the built environment in the final product. We are gratified that the task force did just that.

The full White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity report contains five components: Early Childhood; Empowering Parents and Caregivers; Healthy Food in Schools; Access to Healthy, Affordable Food; and Increasing Physical Activity. Our interest is primarily in the last section, which has a section on the built environment. According to the report:

How communities are designed and function can promote—or inhibit—physical activity for children and adults.  The built environment consists of all man-made structures, including transportation infrastructure, schools, office buildings, housing, and parks.  Children’s ability to be physically active in their community depends on whether the community is safe and walkable, with good sidewalks and reasonable distances between destinations.

The report notes that several studies have already attributed obesity and health problems to aspects of our current built environment, such as sprawling subdivisions and lack of places to walk. It makes intuitive sense too. When we live further and further from where we work, where we go for recreation, where we go to school or where we shop, it makes us all the more reliant on automobiles, especially in the absence of viable alternatives. In urban areas, one-fifth of all automobile trips are one mile or less. These distances could easily be walked or biked with the proper infrastructure in place, as the report notes.

To that end, the task force lends an unequivocal endorsement to “active transportation.” Improving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is one place they suggest we start, as is the continuation and expansion of the Safe Routes to Schools program, currently funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Active transport refers to approaches that encourage individuals to actively travel between their destinations throughout the day, such as by biking or walking.  Children who walk or bike to school report being more physically active, including engaging in more moderate to vigorous physical activity, than those who travel by car, bus, or train.

The First Lady’s recommendations also embrace an exciting new way of linking health to the built environment in the form of Health Impact Assessments (HIAs). Many communities are already embracing this approach, which evaluates whether a new project helps or hinders public health.

The built environment section’s key benchmark: increase by 50 percent by 2015 the percentage of children between the ages of 5 and 18 who walk or bike to school. That’s a goal we can all get behind, and one Congress ought to remember as the new surface transportation bill progresses.