The 2012 Summer Olympics is a great opportunity to educate the world on the dangers of obesity. The host country England, along with the U.S., are two of the most obese nations in the world. They are also, interestingly, both pretty low on the “active transportation” scale, as highlighted in this chart.
In London’s sprawling development, which can often make biking or walking from Underground stations difficult, it seems clear that sitting in cars through gnarled traffic is contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Getting around town is projected to be fairly rough for Londoners and visitors throughout the Olympics. A group called Transport for London runs rail and bus services and is asking residents to change working hours, stagger commutes, and commute by bicycle and foot. Meanwhile, Olympic organizers have banned bicycles from special VIP routes added for the event, leaving cyclists with narrower options for making their way safely through traffic.
Arlington County, Virginia, nestled across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., is a good example of how active transport and obesity are clearly connected, as noted in the above chart. County leaders had a vision, several decades back, to build living, working, and playing “activity centers” around Metro subway lines. The result has been few traffic jams and a stunning percentage of healthy people. Arlington’s 19.4 percent obesity rate is the lowest for any county in Virginia.
Based on the health-care costs alone, the benefits from increased bicycling and walking could add up to annual savings of anywhere between $400 million and up to $28 billion, according to Active Transportation for America, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, and the Bikes Belong Coaltion.
Kids today, simply put, don’t walk or bike to school anymore (specifically, between 1966 and 2009, the number of children who bicycled or walked to school fell 75 percent, while the percentage of obese children rose 276 percent). There are fewer physical-education classes in schools. And after class, children don’t necessarily spend much time playing outside. These growing trends seem like they should be troubling to any parents.
Arlington’s success stems from aggressive education and outreach programs through WalkArlington, BikeArlington, The Commuter Store®, and employer outreach about transportation alternatives and benefits through Arlington Transportation Partners. The message has clearly been paying off for the health of the county’s workers and residents.
With estimates that a quarter to a third of today’s children in England and the U.S. are currently obese, we need a major push by land-use planners and transportation experts, like those in Arlington County, to provide help in getting communities healthier and less obese. At least six of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2009 were influenced by transportation behavior, so we need local, national, and even international conversations about healthy land-use and transportation planning.
Arlington County is not quiet in promoting the successes of its programs. And, to quote the World Health Organization, “Health is the presence of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” So as the world, and especially people in the U.S. and UK, gathers around to start watching the Olympics and the beautiful specimens of human beings on display, it would be a perfect time for the athletes and the International Olympic Committee to take a stand with bold public calls for active lifestyles.
Chart courtesy of Sonali Soneji of Mobility Lab and the Southeastern Institute of Research. The source of the chart data is D. Basset et al., “Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia, “ 2008.
Photo courtesy of bigheadache