Would Walkable Sidewalks Keep Us Thinner?

A few weeks ago on a trip to a picture perfect Vermont town, we asked the proprietor of our B&B if we could walk to the concert that night.

“You can, sure… it is less than a mile, but it will be dangerous walking home in the dark. There are no sidewalks and no street lights,” she told us.  So we drove, despite feeling silly at using the car for such a short distance, but happy we had done so when we left the concert. Ground fog was adding to the darkness in concealing the road, and we were sure we would not have felt safe walking back up the hilly, winding route.

The next day, we chatted about the lack of sidewalks and street lights with our hostess. She told us that daytime walking on the roads was manageable in the non-snow months, but not in the winter; the snow banks reduced the width of the roads and eliminated any possibility of stepping off the pavement.  “See, there’s is no side of the road to stand on when a pick-up truck comes speeding down the mountain….no one walks; it’s just too easy to be hit.”

There is no lack of activities in Vermont to provide opportunities to exercise, even if taking long walks in the winter is not one of them (Unless it is on a packed snow trail.) But unlike the quick convenience of going out the door to take a walk when sidewalks (plowed, of course) do exist, the lack of sidewalks in suburban or rural areas makes this simple activity difficult to carry out.

For the exercise committed, there are, of course, numerous opportunities to engage in physical exercise regardless of weather or environment. Not so for those who prefer being sedentary and are unlikely to seek out opportunities to move. In an episode of a television program focused on finding a house to buy, the client announced that she was too old (she was in her fifties) to buy a house with stairs. “Too much walking, “she told her realtor. Not surprisingly, the community in which she was house hunting had no sidewalks. If this woman had been advised to walk for her health and weight, she would have had a ready excuse. “Where? There is no place to walk where I live!”

No one has to be told about the rising incidence of obesity. Simply looking around confirms its prevalence, although the effects such as diabetes, back & leg pain, as well as the increased risk of certain types of cancer are silent.  One obvious culprit is that we eat too much, in part because portion sizes of just about everything have increased. Another fault lay in that we no longer live a lifestyle readily allowing us to burn off those excess calories. When physical activity was unavoidable in order to earn a living and maintain a household, a large caloric intake provided the fuel for the constant physical activity.  Now caloric intake has remained the same, or most likely increased, while physical activity has become optional for the most of us most of the time.

Because they eliminate a source of calorie use, might the absence of walkable sidewalks be a contributing factor to the continuous rise in obesity? The Journal of the American Medical Association (“JAMA”) published a study in 2016 showing that residents living in walkable urban neighborhoods had a slower increase in obesity and diabetes than those living in less walkable ones.  For this specific research, almost 9,000 urban neighborhoods in southern Ontario were studied over more than 11 years.  This study’s “Walkability Index” was based on safety of the sidewalks, the residential and commercial density, cross walks at intersections, schools, coffee shops, banks, and other retail establishments which might be walkable destinations.  People living in the walkable neighborhoods, and New York City is another example; they use sidewalks not only to get to their routine destinations like work, stores and restaurants but as places for urban hikes. These city dwellers may spend an entire day outside, hiking and exploring different parts of their city. The seemingly limitless places to walk allow them to do so.

However, it’s important to note the benefits of walking by city dwellers are not available to residents of towns such as the one we visited in rural Vermont. The population density is too low to justify the expense of sidewalks, and indeed many of roads are not even paved. Of course there are numerous places to hike, but this activity is not only seasonally limited, but also limited to people whose stamina and age enable them to climb mountain trails.

Perhaps the answer is to emulate many European cities which have set aside parkland filled with paved paths for walking. From my limited experience of these parks which I have seen in Holland, France and Germany, they are usually filled with walkers early in the day and then especially in the summer, after dinner. Benches are numerous for those who need to rest or just admire a view.  Strolling through one of these walking parks has the additional advantage of allowing members of a community to see and talk with each other. People often walk in small groups, or stop and greet others coming in the opposite direction. When so many members of a neighborhood are out walking?  It is easy to see this activity as a routine and healthful aspect of the day.

Eating less to prevent weight gain and/or lose weight is difficult because potential temptation lurks in the next meal. Walking may not compensate entirely for excess calories, but it can have a positive effect on preventing weight gain… unless of course, one walks to the doughnut shop.

Cite: Association of Neighborhood Walkability With Change in Overweight, Obesity, and Diabetes. Creatore M, Glazier R, Moineddin R.  JAMA  2016, 315; 2211-2220

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