Vermonters are often recognized for being physically active and enjoying the outdoors. However, the statistics tell a different story. Twenty-three percent of Vermont adults are obese, 35 percent are overweight, and 44 percent do not meet the recommended level of daily activity. Local planners, community partners and state leaders can help combat the growing obesity epidemic by developing walkable neighborhoods, providing access to public transportation and creating parks and recreational opportunities in our communities — smart growth ways to incorporate physical activity into our everyday lives.
In 2005, 56 percent of Vermont adults claimed to be moderately physically active for at least 30 minutes five or more times a week. While above the national average, almost half of our population falls short of national standards. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, physical fitness is a better predictor of the risk of death than smoking, hypertension, heart disease and other risk factors. Lack of physical activity is also a major factor in rising obesity rates.
Land development patterns that promote mixed land use and compact town centers enhance opportunities for physical activity and provide mobility options. In communities that incorporate sidewalks, crosswalks, bike paths, and transit stops into their development, residents can safely reach destinations, save on transportation costs and be more active.
Land use can significantly influence the overall health of residents. For example, studies find that:
- Residents of communities with a mix of shops and businesses within easy walking distance have a 35 percent lower risk of obesity than residents of communities without these services close by. A typical white male living in a compact, mixed-use community weighs about 10 pounds less than a similar man in an area with only homes.
- People living in the most sprawling areas are likely to weigh six pounds more than those living in the least sprawling areas.
- Increasing sidewalks along the route to school from 26 percent to 36 percent improves the likelihood that a child will choose to walk by 18 percent; an increase in residential density on the way to school from two dwelling units per acre to 2.5 dwelling units per acre improves walking likelihood by seven percent.
- American public transit users walk a median of 19 minutes per day to and from public transit, and many achieve the recommended 30 minutes per day of physical activity through walking to public transit alone.
- In locations with light rail and development, riders lost an average of 6.45 pounds due to transit use.
No matter how close a town center may be, if a major road stands between it and a neighborhood, the town center is not accessible. Well-designed increased density can improve accessibility to homes, schools, and workplaces.
Other ways to encourage physical activity using smart growth development would be to create streets and sidewalks that are safe, inviting and people-friendly. Emphasize active transportation that is pleasant and desirable as well as convenient. When planning for transportation infrastructure, communities should plan for connections between roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and public transit access. Cooperate with transit providers, employers and services to provide active transportation and links between buildings and destinations. With such improvements, Vermonters could be more physically active and achieve better overall health.
Germany and the Netherlands have achieved high rates of biking and walking by:
- Investing heavily in better walking and biking facilities;
- Utilizing Traffic calming measures in residential neighborhoods;
- Designing urban areas that are sensitive to the needs of non-motorists;
- Placing restrictions on automobile use in cities;
- Providing rigorous traffic education and
- Strict enforcement of traffic laws that protect pedestrians and cyclists.
Did you know?
Seventy-three percent of respondents to the 2010 Future of Transportation National Survey said they “have no choice but to drive.” Seventy-nine percent of rural voters said they preferred investing in public transportation, bike paths and sidewalks, rather than building new roads.