|We Are What We Build|
by Jon Kaplan, Bicycle & Pedestrian Program Manager, VTrans
I know that you thought the saying was “you are what you eat” and that still is true, but there is an increasing body of research that shows that our health is also related to the environment we live in. There are two current initiatives in Vermont with obesity prevention as their goal. One is the Attorney General’s formation of a group to develop recommendations on the topic and the other is a continuation of the Vermont Department of Health’s Fit and Healthy Vermonters program.
Health professionals and others have been quick to make the connection between what they refer to as “the built environment” and individual health. This is really a rephrasing of the long-running discussion about the connection between land use and transportation.
To put it in layman’s terms, if you have dense, mixed-use development supported by, or built around, good public transit and comprehensive biking and walking networks, people will bike and walk more. This increase in regular physical activity leads to a population that has lower rates of obesity. Not only have health professionals made this connection, but they now have put changes to the built environment near the top of their list of interventions to prevent obesity.
Recently, Vermont’s Attorney General’s office has identified obesity as a public health problem on par with smoking. As with efforts around smoking, the AG has gathered a diverse group to come up with recommendations on the topic of obesity prevention. After an introductory meeting, the group has been split into three sub-topics (land use, retail environments, and children and families). Information on the AG’s efforts can be found at http://www.atg.state.vt.us/issues/consumer-protection/obesity.php. The result of this effort will be a report to the Attorney General that outlines recommendations for each topic.
The Vermont Department of Health keeps statistics on obesity and the chronic diseases that result. The numbers are pretty grim:
• More than half (59 percent) of Vermont adults are overweight or obese; that equals 280,000 Vermont adults who are above a healthy weight.
• 22 percent of adults are obese weighing more than 30 pounds above a healthy weight.
• The prevalence of obesity among Vermont adults has doubled between 1990 and 2007.
• Annual medical expenses related to adult obesity in Vermont total about $141 million. (Note: that is about the total spent on all transportation projects each year in VT)
More information about the VT Department of Health can be found at http://healthvermont.gov/fitandhealthy.aspx. One promising tool that is starting to be used in the U.S. is a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Similar to an Environmental Impact Assessment, an HIA looks at a particular project – say a Wal-Mart on the edge of town or an expanded roadway or a new bus service – and determines what impact the project will have on the health of the general population. While we have not used this tool yet in Vermont, it has shown promise elsewhere.
Those of us who walk or bike regularly do so for many reasons, and now we can add health to that list. Biking and walking truly have a high potential to address many of society’s current problems – climate change, energy use, traffic safety, traffic congestion, quality of life and health. What better time to support and embrace these basic ways to get around?
The Better World Club offers bicycle-only and car-and-bike membership, including insurance and free roadside assistance. Better World Club offers VBPC members a 10% discount on new membership. The VBPC receives a donation for every new sign-up.