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Urban Planners Should Encourage Fitness

Beth Johnston-Ross, Halifax Daily News

Urban sprawl could be causing some sprawling Haligonian waistlines.

Because so many of us spend hours in our cars commuting to and from work, then drive to run errands, we are missing the opportunity to get moving, a Heart and Stroke Foundation report released yesterday says.

Urban planning can boost residents' fitness levels by providing them with walking or cycling alternatives to driving and accessible sports and recreation facilities, saving public money on health- care costs, the GPI Atlantic report concludes.

"Halifax's 25-year planning process is a great opportunity to highlight the need to build communities with health in mind," said Clare O'Connor, the Heart and Stroke Foundation's director of policy and government relations. "(The city) is headed in the right direction and realizes there is a connection between planning and physical activity, and this report tries to drive that home."

Even a 10 per cent improvement in Haligonians' level of activity would yield a savings to the province of $4.75 million, the report said.

"Our communities need to support activity at the recreational level, but to have the biggest impact, we need to ensure that (there are) biking and walking options for everyday mobility," O'Connor said. "Walking or biking to work, grocery stores, dry cleaners are all ways of incorporating physical activity into our daily schedules."

For two years, researchers tracked the travel patterns of 10,500 residents of Atlanta, Ga., recording BMI (body mass index), minutes spent in a car and kilometres walked. (The body mass index is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.)

The study found people who live in high-density neighbourhoods tend to walk to the shops and services they need. This daily exercise pattern shows up in their smaller waistlines. People who lived in pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods lowered their risk of obesity by 35 per cent. Having a bus stop close to your house means you're more likely to walk to it, the report said.

In 2001, 8.3 per cent of Nova Scotians walked to work, and 0.6 per cent took their bike, according to Statistics Canada Census data. Improved sidewalks and cycle paths could improve these numbers, the report said.

The report brings a useful perspective to regional planning, which is trying to make the city's communities "walkable," said Carol Macomber, the head of regional planning.

"It makes a big difference if you are able to walk to do your errands, and a lot of people really enjoy being able to do that and not having to drive everywhere," Macomber said. "There's a lot we can do to work toward a more proactive approach to health care."