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Surgeon General Announces Call to Action on Walking

Walking can seem like a rather mundane thing to get organized about, until you realize that it’s a direct challenge to car-oriented transportation and it’s the best thing people can do for their health. Then walking is downright revolutionary.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin exhorted advocates this morning to make walking "joyful." Photo by Tanya Snyder.

Not only that, but it can be joyful. That was the message that the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, brought to a gathering of walking advocates in Washington today. “We have to make being healthy joyful,” she said.

“One person’s joy might be to run a marathon,” she said. “Another person’s is just fit into an old pair of jeans. And another’s is just to sit up all day with their grandkids. We have to stop telling people what they can’t do or what they can’t eat. We have to tell them what they can do. They can go out for walks. They can go out with their friends.”

When Benjamin was nominated to her post, she was immediately barraged with questions about her own weight. Critics said it was inappropriate to have a full-figured person as the leading public health official in a country that struggles with a 36 percent obesity rate. But Dr. Benjamin’s message is, “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

Benjamin recounted a tale of a friend of hers finding out she liked walking and inviting her to go on a walk – to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She said she huffed and puffed her way back up the 4,000 feet of altitude change, but it was fun. “But you don’t have to have a national park,” she said. “You just have your street outside your house.”

The CDC is going to produce a Surgeon General’s report that is “a call to action on walking.” That’ll be accompanied by a national campaign for walking. “We want to lend the voice of the Office of the Surgeon General to this particular physical activity,” she said. “It’s easy to do, anyone can do it and it’s fun.”

She told Streetsblog after her remarks that it will, realistically, take 18 months to launch the call to action.

Benjamin’s commitment to walking as an inclusive form of physical exercise dovetails nicely with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which also embraces biking and walking as a good way for young people to work physical activity into their day. And not only that: Dr. Benjamin ended her speech by thanking the walking advocates in the room for “implementing the Affordable Care Act’s prevention strategy.”

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British National Health Experts: Cycling Safer Than Couch Sitting

A British national health authority is advising UK residents to make walking and cycling the norm for short trips, in order to reduce the risk of chronic diseases associated with the nation’s obesity epidemic.

Inactivity poses greater risks than cycling, says one leading British medical expert. Photo: The Guardian

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence issued a 97-page report Wednesday on the topic with a number of recommendations. The National Health Service reports that 26 percent of British people are obese, while in America the figure is 35.7 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The researchers recommends biking and walking as the best way to integrate more activity into the daily lives of British people, and they’re pressuring government officials to get to work on making active transportation a more attractive choice, according to the Guardian.

The report urges local governments to install more complete bicycle infrastructure, help schools establish “walking buses,” and encourage employers to create programs aimed at helping staff members drive less.

“We all face barriers in changing our lifestyles and many of us feel we don’t have the time or the inclination to add regular physical activity into our lives,” Dr. Harry Rutter, an obesity researcher who led the study for NICE, told the Guardian. “But walking and cycling – to work, to school, to the shops or elsewhere – can make a huge difference. It’s an opportunity to make these activities part of normal, routine daily behavior.”

Dr. Rutter has had to defend cycling from worrywarts who questioned whether the activity is too dangerous.

“This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given,” he said. “What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.”

Researchers report that inactivity in the UK is as big a public health problem as smoking. According to their metrics only one in four British women, and one in three men, are getting enough exercise to live healthy lives.

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Infographic: The Many Connections Between Transportation and Health

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched their “New Public Health” website last year with the goal of meeting community members where they are to talk about public health. A lot of those conversations happen online, and they explore the connections between public health and policy decisions related to everything from education to transportation. Last week, they published an interview with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood.

They also put out a complete and convincing infographic showing why sustainable transportation modes are a key component of any public health strategy — and any healthy and prosperous community.

It highlights the positive health correlation between transit and health — and suggests that maybe the walk home from the train station is the best part of your commute. Experts say people are willing to walk a quarter mile to a bus stop and a half mile to a rail station. The more bus stops and rail stations there are, the more people get those healthy 19 minutes of walking, too.

Walking and biking as part of your commute can reduce obesity and your risk of a crash. And job sprawl that makes it harder for people to walk or bike to work cost communities money.

But don’t take my word for it — take it from the public health experts. Full infographic after the jump:

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Will DOT’s New Freight Council Focus on More Than Trucks?

On Thursday, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announced the creation of a new Freight Policy Council, which is charged with coming up with a freight strategic plan. This is a first step toward a sorely lacking national plan around freight.

DOT Chief Ray LaHood announced the freight policy council's creation last week in Washington state. Photo courtesy of the secretary's FastLane blog

The movement of goods accounts for about a quarter of all transportation-related emissions. Every American is responsible for 40 tons of freight a year, according to DOT. Everyone agrees that freight is essential for the economic well-being of the country, and much more so given President Obama’s stated goal of doubling exports by 2015. “A more efficient freight network will reduce traffic congestion, environmental impact and shipping costs, which will lead to lower prices for consumers,” according to a press release by U.S. DOT. But up until now, there’s been no coherent policy around freight, or any governmental body tasked exclusively with looking at it.

A bill to create a national freight strategic plan and a permanent freight planning office at DOT was introduced two years ago but was always intended to be rolled into a reauthorization, not passed as a stand-alone bill. MAP-21 captured most of the elements of that plan, and advocates are glad to see it moving forward.

“Creation of a high-level, multimodal Freight Policy Council will go far in ensuring MAP-21’s freight provisions increase efficiency across all modes of the national freight network,” said Mortimer Downey, chair of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, in a statement. “Establishment of this Council signals a praiseworthy commitment to our national economy and global economic competitiveness.”

The operative word there is “multimodal.” For sustainable transportation advocates, that’s the key to whether this council – and the plan it comes up with – is transformative or disappointing. “Are they going to build a lot of truck-only lanes or are they going to look toward a smarter future where we’re moving as much as possible off the roads?” asks Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club’s Green Transportation Campaign. “It is certainly time that we take a very close look at how we are moving freight and ensure that we do as much as possible to slash oil consumption, carbon pollution and the dangerous air pollution associated with freight.”

U.S. DOT didn’t need legislation to move forward on creating a national freight plan. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) urged LaHood to do so months ago, using his existing authority. But MAP-21, signed into law July 6, gave the agency the kick in the pants to get it done.

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How Local Transportation Decisions Can Put Public Health Front and Center

Many states can use Health Impact Assessments to evaluate transportation projects, but few are doing so right now. Image: Health Impact Project

Transportation projects often have profound consequences for public health, whether negative (in the case of fossil fuel-burning highway expansions) or positive (in the case of calorie-burning bike-friendly, walkable streets). So why don’t cities and states always consider health impacts when evaluating a transportation project or policy?

That’s the question at the heart of a new paper released today by the Pew Health Group and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [PDF], prepared by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

The authors looked at the prevalence of “Health Impact Assessments,” which analyze the public health effects of a particular project or policy on a given population. Think of it as an Environmental Impact Statement, only the indicators are people, not ecosystems. HIAs are already used to inform policy decisions concerning health care or disease prevention, but they have also been used to evaluate transportation projects, like the East Bay Greenway. The HIA for the greenway influenced the design of the project, suggesting better integration with existing biking and walking paths, and helped to secure funding from Alameda County.

In some places, the report found, HIAs are already required in non-health policy sectors, while in others they are actually prohibited by law (though never for transportation). Most jurisdictions fall somewhere in between, with HIAs allowed but not mandated. (An EIS, on the other hand, is required by federal law for certain projects.)

The report does not evaluate the effectiveness of HIAs. Rather, the authors suggest that where HIAs have been slow to take root, an understanding of the law can increase their importance:

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New WHO Tool Calculates the Health Savings of Bike/Ped Infrastructure

Sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic calming projects — they save lives. Not just by protecting cyclists and pedestrians (not to mention motorists), but by encouraging physical activity that leads to a healthy life.

La Mesa crosswalk

How much will that new traffic calming project benefit society? A new tool from the World Health Organization puts a figure on it. Photo: Tom Fudge/KPBS

Of course, it can be hard to convince politicians to see things in those terms when it’s time to pony up for walking and biking infrastructure. That is the brilliance of this new tool from the World Health Organization.

The WHO, which is on a mission to rein in the worldwide epidemic of traffic deaths and injuries, has developed a tool that measures the health impacts of bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects, calculating cost-benefit analyses as well as the economic value of reduced mortality.

Of course you need to do a little advance preparation before using the tool. You’ll need to have a fair amount of information about local travel habits at your disposal. (For example, you’ll be prompted to estimate the percentage of people who currently take walking trips and the average length of the trip.) But it’s the type of info your local metro planning agency should have publicly available. Worst case scenario, you have to perform a survey.

The tool is recommended for planners and engineers as well as advocacy groups.

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A Bike Company Offers a Prescription for America’s Health Care Cost Crisis

While health care costs for American companies have been skyrocketing, Quality Bicycle Products is spending less on health care, thanks in part to a wellness program that encourages employees to commute by bike. Image: QBP

One of the most talked-about presentations at this week’s National Bike Summit came from Jason Gaikowski, director of sales for the Bloomington, Minnesota-based wholesale distributor Quality Bicycle Products. Over the last several years, QBP has ramped up its employee health and wellness program, which includes incentives to bike to work. At a time when most employers are grappling with rising insurance premiums, a study by the company’s health insurance provider, HealthPartners [PDF], suggests the program has helped reduce QBP’s health care costs and increase employee productivity.

Gaikowski made the case that QBP’s example bears a lesson for the nation’s transportation policy makers: Investment in infrastructure that supports active transportation can help rein in the country’s skyrocketing health care costs.

While you probably want to take research on the health benefits of cycling commissioned by a bike company with a grain of salt, Gaikowski’s basic premise has already been embraced by the experts at the Centers for Disease Control. The QBP/HealthPartners case study adds some intriguing data about the potential impact of bike commuting on employee health and the corporate bottom line, and it suggests some areas ripe for further study.

As part of its wellness program, QBP offers a few inducements for employees to commute by bike: The company provides secure parking and showers at work, and it pays employees $3 each day they ride to work. The cash payments add up to about $45,000 each year.

While the study doesn’t isolate the impact of bike commuting on lower health care costs, the program seems to be paying off. HealthPartners reported that participants in the “Bike to Work” program (about 100 of QBP’s 464 employees) cost approximately $200,000 less per year in health care claims annually, based on a comparison with employees who don’t participate in the program.

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Anti-Sprawl Doctor to Host PBS Series on Urban Design and Public Health

“A leading voice for better urban design for the sake of good health.” “A public health/social justice hero.” Dr. Richard Jackson, chair of environmental health at UCLA, is a leading voice for transportation reform whose work has linked America’s sprawl to the nation’s high rates of obesity.

The former director of the Center for Disease Control’s Environment Health Department will take to the airwaves Tuesday in an interview with PBS’s Tavis Smiley. The interview will run in coordination with Dr. Jackson’s four-hour documentary series, Designing Healthy Communities (check local listings).

Dr. Jackson spent years researching public health epidemics and zeroed in on car dependence and sprawl as leading factors in America’s diabetes and obesity epidemics.

“We have built America in a way that is, I believe, is fundamentally unhealthy,” Dr. Jackson says. “It prevents us from walking. It inhibits us from socializing. It removes trees and the things that make our air quality better. We could not have designed an environment that is more difficult for people’s well being at this point.”

He adds: “Two percent of the United States’ gross domestic product goes to the treatment of diabetes. This is a crushing economic impact.”

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Maps Show Striking Link Between Car Commuting and Obesity

Check out these two maps, the first showing obesity rates (by county) in the United States and the second showing the percentage of commuters who travel by car (via Planetizen).

Obesity rates are highest in Appalachia and the Southeast United States. Image: Planetizen

A map showing the percentage of car commuters shows a strikingly similar pattern.

Researchers Anne Price and Ariel Godwin at Planetizen caution readers not to conflate correlation and causation. However, when comparing other economic and demographic characteristics (unemployment, educational attainment, income), no other maps displayed such striking similarities.

Furthermore, when the research team created a scatterplot comparing obesity rates in U.S. counties with commuting patterns, a “strong relationship” emerged.

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This Is Your Brain on Cars—Oh, and Your Lungs and Heart and Gut, Too

Gerontologists in a laboratory at the University of Southern California exposed a group of mice to the same atmospheric conditions that humans encounter when driving along the freeway. Horrifyingly, they discovered that the mice’s brains showed the kind of swelling and inflammation associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers didn’t super-dose to get these results: the mice were exposed to freeway air for the equivalent of 15 hours a week — less than the 18.5 hour average Americans spend in their cars. Jokes aside about getting those darn mice off the road, the study suggests that driving less can reduce our risk of brain damage.

Let’s make not strapping a child into a car seat a symbolic act of love. Photo: Lafayette County Health

For decades, Americans have been hearing about the dangers of air pollution, much of which derives from our fleet of vehicles. Yet as the body of research has grown, clarifying just how damaging automobiles are to human health and the environment, we’ve persisted in spending an astounding amount of time in cars. As a nation, we drove three trillion miles last year. We have developed responses designed to treat symptoms of the underlying ailment, like keeping children indoors when the local ozone level triggers “code red” or “code purple” alerts. But as a whole, we have not responded to the everyday contamination of our bodies by driving less.

Most of us feel powerless to affect air quality. Many feel trapped by the built environment and unable to cut down on driving. Plenty also see no point in changing their behavior when “everyone else” is going to drive as much as they wish to. It’s unsurprising then that news about pollution is brushed aside—as is news about other ills caused by driving, including crash fatalities and injuries, stress, and obesity.

The UCLA mouse study joined other recent reports that highlight the variety of ways in which remaining overly reliant on the private automobile is self-destructive. But these reports should also make clear that changes in individual behavior can alleviate some of the problems. Here’s just a sampling:

  • Sitting for long stretches greatly increases the risk of heart disease – even if you exercise afterwards – according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. It may come as no surprise that sitting isn’t good for your health, but what’s shocking is that the raft of articles following the study tended to ignore active transportation while advocating improbable solutions such as standing treadmill desks. What’s more practical than replacing some of our long hours planted in the driver’s seat with walking, biking, or getting by foot to public transit stops?
  • While there was some good news in the American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air Report, as one commentator put it, it was “like getting a 53 on your math test after you got a 49 on your last one.” Half of Americans live in areas in which air quality is unhealthy. The ALA points out that the elderly, the young, and the sick are most vulnerable to the effects of pollution. And of course some of the sick—such as those suffering from asthma and heart disease—can trace the very causes of their conditions to air pollution.
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