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For the Public Health by Alison Scott, PhD.
Can your town make you fat?
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    We all know that eating too many donuts and Big Macs and vegging out in front of our large-screen, high-definition TVs is not good for our waistlines. We also know that our national waistlines are expanding at an alarming rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one in three of us today is a healthy weight.
    But the other two are having more fun, we may think to ourselves. Unfortunately, the issue goes beyond glazed and powdered-sugar guilt. The CDC, ever determined to be a party-pooper, also tells us about the “actual causes of death” in America.
    More or less, these tell us not how many heart attacks we’re having as a nation, but rather what caused the heart attacks. In 2000, seventeen percent of all deaths in the U.S. were caused by “poor diet and physical inactivity” (which leads to obesity, which leads to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure). So roughly one in five deaths these days is related to being overweight or obese.
    We all know that donuts and too much TV contribute to being overweight and to a myriad of health problems, but did you know that your town can make you fat?
    Public health findings have recently emerged that show the importance of the “built environment” to health. In other words, how we develop our towns and neighborhoods has a big effect on our health. For example, “sprawling” development (building widely spread subdivisions and strip-malls connected by high speed, multi-lane roads) may be good for cars, but it’s bad for people.
    A 2003 study found that people living in more sprawling areas had higher risk of being overweight and having high blood pressure. Other studies have shown that living on streets with no sidewalks, having poor access to recreational facilities, living near fast-food restaurants and having longer driving times to work, school and errands are associated with higher rates of being overweight and obese.
    People living in poor neighborhoods are especially vulnerable, as they are less likely to have safe spaces to walk and play, and less likely to have transport (and money) to go elsewhere for exercise and eating options.
    So what is a built environment that supports healthy weight and overall good health? Here are some suggestions offered by the CDC:
    Design communities around people, not cars.
    Go for green space! Beyond providing places to exercise, parks and playgrounds have been shown to promote a sense of community, reduce violence, and improve mental health.
    Intermingle shops and homes and schools so people can walk or ride bikes rather than drive.
    Think about access and cost, which may place activities out of reach for those most in need.
    Public health professionals and city planners have been teaming up to make their communities healthier all over the country. As Statesboro grows, we have the opportunity to make the decision here: Will we build a healthy environment for our families, or will we just build?

    Alison Scott, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Community Health and Health Behavior, Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University.
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