How your community is probably killing you

Safe, quiet, peaceful -- and slowly contributing to your early demise.

Safe, quiet, peaceful — and slowly contributing to your early demise.

One thing that concerns me today is how much people move these days. Or should I say, how little people move.

I love the stories of friends I know who have broken loose from sedentary lifestyles and found not only healthy living, but a sense of empowerment and a bigger world available to them.

The father of three who dropped 50 pounds and got his hypertension in check.

The woman, beaten down by a lot of what life has thrown at her, doing her first 5K. Which turned into a 10K. A half marathon. And then the full 26.2.

A woman who tried on her kid’s discarded hiking boots, hiked to the top of Pikes Peak and developed a habit that, 60 pounds later, has turned her into a lean, mean hiking machine.

But I know for each of these stories, there are scores of others in which people do not succeed in getting healthy. Surrounding them are forces that conspire to keep them inactive, eating junk and sleeping erratically. Awaiting them are obesity, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and premature degradation of their musculo-skeletal system.

Call it death by underuse.

There are a lot of factors in this. Admittedly, some people choose to slowly kill themselves via lifestyle choices. But in other instances, things are done to us that work us into an oddly stressful state of physical inactivity.

One of those things: Our cities.

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Different historical and socio-economic factors have determined how these communities are designed and grow. What is mostly true, especially in the Midwest and West, is that our cities are compartmentalized in ways that inhibit the free flow of people moving in things other than our cars. Let’s take a tour so you can see what I mean.

Here is where we work.

wherewework

Here is where we shop.

shopping

Here is where we entertain ourselves.

bricktown

And this is where we live.

suburb2

And this is how we get to all these places, which are often disconnected from each other, sometimes at distances of 10, 20, or even 50 miles or more.

traffic

For a lot of us, that means sitting in a car for anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes a day to get to and from work; 8 to 12 hours a day sitting at work; 10 to 30 minutes each way to go shopping; 10 to 60 minutes going somewhere to sit and eat, then jump back in the car to sit and watch a two-hour show; and when it’s all done and over with, plop down at home in front of the TV and spend the last waking moments of our day sitting.

By the way, sitting a lot is not good for you.

A lot of us, in an attempt to escape these confines, buy a house on land in the country, with the thought of being able to relax in peace and quiet, in nature, and away from the stresses of battling city congestion. The reality is that it usually just increases our drive times, because a home in the exburbs or out in the country is just another compartment of a life filled with disconnected compartments in which navigating the to-and-from requires more time on your butt, driving.

This is the reality of modern, zoned development. Want an ice cream cone? Get in your car and drive. Need to pick up some groceries? Get a bite to eat? Meet someone for a brew or two? Drive time is involved. And on Sundays, a lot of us pile the family into the car (big SUV?) and drive a good ways to church, sometimes to buildings that resemble malls, complete with sprawling parking lots to handle all those wheeled metal boxes toting the faithful to their respective houses of worship.

Notice I haven’t even mentioned things like going to the gym for a lift or heading somewhere to go run run or ride your bike. Most times, you’ve got to drive to those places, too, because neighborhood fitness centers have been replaced by big gyms in strip malls and shopping districts, many neighborhoods aren’t pedestrian-friendly and most parks aren’t designed for much else outside of playgrounds or your kids’ baseball/softball/soccer games in mind.

Now picture instead a community that grows more organically, a place where you work, shop and play is all mixed together, with most everything within walking distance. Imagine being able to walk out your door, stroll a few blocks and be at the doorstep of your favorite restaurant or pub. Your gym is three doors down. Your office is 10 minutes on foot, or 5 minutes by bike. Your community is a place with quick access to walkable, runnable, bike-able paths where you can get a good sweat. Green spaces are designed for everyone in mind, regardless of age.

If you lived in that kind of a community, you’d not only save a ton of money on gas, but you’d move your body a lot more. Our bodies are designed to move, not sit. Chances are, you’d also be a lot more connected to your community, as being in its midst on foot tends to feel a lot different than being inside your car – itself a tiny compartment of life, complete with its own climate, entertainment and communications.

Our communities are already built, so it’s not like we’re going to tear them down and rebuild them into some pedestrian utopia. But I have to wonder what, if any, steps community leaders will be taking in the future to help their cities and towns evolve into something healthier for their people.

We need to move more. We need to feel more physical connection to the places where we live, something beyond being the place where we mow a yard once a week and go to sleep at night. I can’t blame people for wanting to live in affordable homes, places with good schools and communities that are safe, peaceful and quiet. I just wish more of them were places that weren’t making us sicker.

It’s something to think about. Maybe if you agree, you can demand better. And if not, maybe it’s a good time to re-examine where we live, and find somewhere that might help you live longer – and live better.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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10 thoughts on “How your community is probably killing you

  1. Well written and so true. I actually live in a downtown area and avoid the car as much as possible aside from my work commute, but unfortunately I still have a work commute so it involves drive time each day. This really is something to think about.

    • It is. I got into a discussion about this topic while inside a huge shopping district on my city’s south side and realized just how segmented our communities are, how spread out they are, and how much time it takes to get anywhere to do anything. I lived that life for many, many years, and I know it affected my health. It’s different now, thank goodness, but I can’t help but think about how disconnected we are from, well, everything living in communities like this. And the health consequences are devastating.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. I would love to hear a city planner’s response to this. I’m sure many are interested in walking communities, but I imagine organizing the actual project would be a logistical/political nightmare. Still, I would love to live in a walkable, holistically-designed area. When I lived in a small town in Mexico, this was still a viable lifestyle (to some extent) and it was blissful.

    • Let’s face it: It’s a whole lot easier to plan a community with zoned planned development. Set aside a tract for houses, another for shopping, another for offices/factories, etc. And I can understand, in some cases, where you have to do that — you’re not going to build an auto plant in the middle of a neighborhood.

      But what gets me is this: I can walk two blocks to get ice cream. Of get a bite to eat. But if I lived in a suburb I’d have to spend 10 to 15 minutes to get that same bit of ice cream. And depending on traffic, it might take me 30 to 40 minutes to get to a place where I could shop. That’s ridiculous. And with everyone all concerned about energy security, gas prices and air pollution, well, there’s a few more cans of worms we just willingly open by the way we chose to design our communities.

      • You’re absolutely right. I commute 45 minutes each way to work. We want to sell our house and move closer (my partner also has about a 25 minute commute) but we can’t afford to lose $25,000 on our house right now. I’ve looked into public transportation, but would have to drive to a parking lot, take three connecting buses, then walk about half a mile to my office, which would be over a 2-hour endeavor each direction (not to mention what happens in bad weather). Telecommuting isn’t an option in my current job, so… I’m stuck. And yes, some nights we opt to stay in after work because we just can’t face more time in the car to reach an adventurous destination.

        I’m realizing now how very whiny this comment is (sorry for that). My point is that it’s really amazing how we’ve boxed ourselves in. Thanks for writing about this!

      • Your story is so common. I had to sell my previous home to take a new job (and I took a bath on that one, about 15 grand), so I was forced into making that choice. I wish more cities had better public transportation; mine certainly is lacking. Just a small metro bus route, and the commute times would be 90-120 minutes for most people in the suburbs. In my previous job: 90 minutes of commuting each day to work. It was brutal.

  3. To be able to get the conveniences of living within walking distance of most things we would have to throw down well over $600,000 for a place (that’s conservative). That’s not in the budget and we would have no yard. Commuting does stink. I would much rather live somewhere that I could walk out the door and find trails to run but until then I guess I will continue the rat race. Although you do bring up valuable points but until people say no more what are you going to do and will that ever happen. Have you ever seen the movie Wallie? That’s where were headed as a race if we don’t stop the insanity (who use to say that?).

    • It will be a hard societal transition to make. We’ve been in this pattern since the late ’40s. I’m not sure that the solution is, but we have to make our communities different, more livable and more sustainable.

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