Have a Physically Active New Year
By Ray Sharp
With every new year come the inevitable resolutions to eat better, exercise more, and lose a few pounds. But oftentimes the best intentions fade quickly in the reality of our busy lives.
One secret to following through on those resolutions is to make daily physical activity a part of your routine instead of a special event that requires extra time, effort, equipment, and a trip to the health club. Many of the healthiest (and happiest) people I know get their exercise doing simple activities, alone or with friends, often starting and ending at their own front doors.
Biking to work, walking with a co-worker at lunchtime, walking with a family member or the family pet after dinner, snowshoeing, splitting and stacking firewood, and working in the garden are a few examples of convenient and enjoyable ways to get daily physical exercise.
In public health, we encourage people to exercise because it can help them maintain a healthy body composition, avoid chronic disease and live more disability-free years. By now, I’m sure everyone knows that moderate physical activity on most days is a key to health for people of all ages. But, with the dramatic increases in overweight and obese children and adults over the last 30 years, clearly that knowledge is not enough. It is important to design our communities so that they make daily physical activity safe and accessible for everyone.
The Western U.P. Health Department, with help from Michigan Department of Community Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides training and technical assistance to communities that want to develop policies and facilities that promote physical activity. Two examples are the Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School programs.
Complete Streets is a policy that requires communities to consider the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and transit users of all ages and abilities, as well as the needs of motorists, when planning new roads or street renovations. Last week, the Houghton City Council passed a Complete Streets ordinance, become just the sixth city in Michigan and the first in the Upper Peninsula to do so.
Research has demonstrated the health benefits of Complete Streets design features such as sidewalks, bike lanes and safe crosswalks. In one study, residents of ‘walkable’ neighborhoods had a 35 percent reduction in obesity risk, and lower rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The health department will provide training and technical assistance to other Western U.P. cities interested in enacting Complete Streets. Hancock and Ironwood are among other cities that are exploring the feasibility and benefits of adopting Complete Streets policies.
Another program that promotes daily physical activity is Safe Routes to School. This school year, the health department is working with schools in Houghton, Dollar Bay, Calumet, L’Anse, Ontonagon and Bessemer to convene a Safe Routes planning team, survey parents and students, plan events that promote walking or biking to school, and develop a strategic plan for making non-motorized travel to and from school safer for children who live within a mile of their schools.
After a school develops a Safe Routes plan, it may be eligible for grant funding to make improvements to the surrounding streetscape to enhance safety and make it easier for children to get daily exercise as a part of their normal activities.
Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School are two of the many ways communities can support individuals and families in their plans for a healthy 2011.
Ray Sharp is the Health Department’s Manager of Community Planning and Preparedness