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Sprawling Suburbs Adding to Nation's Obesity Problem, Researchers Say

People exercise less in spread-out areas and are heavier, on average, than those in more densely populated cities.

August 29, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

In the latest quest to understand why Americans are growing fatter, a study was released Thursday that researchers say proves that sprawling cities result in sprawling waistlines.

And the researchers named names. The bedroom communities of Geauga County, outside of Cleveland, were deemed to have the heaviest residents. Fulton County, outside of Toledo, earned the dubious distinction of runner-up.

The study in the American Journal of Health Promotion argues that sprawling areas typically offer residents fewer chances to exercise or reasons to walk while doing their daily chores. Therefore, people who live in those areas tend to drive more, be less physically active and gain weight.

The theory has become fashionable in recent years among some urban planners and health officials, but until now there wasn't any statistical data to back it.

Using complex statistical methods, the new study indicates that people who live in sprawling areas are heavier than those who live in more compact, pedestrian-friendly cities, such as New York or San Francisco.

Researchers studied people in 448 counties.

The study was led by Reid Ewing, an urban planning researcher at the University of Maryland.

It was cowritten by Barbara McCann, a former writer at the antisprawl group Smart Growth America. The group helped to fund the study, as did the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health philanthropic organization.

The study's conclusions are challenged by some health officials, who note that there are other factors that better explain why so many Americans -- about 60%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- are considered overweight.

Some of these factors include overeating, especially indulgence -- whether for stress or fun -- in cheap, high-fat fast-food.

Being overweight has been linked in numerous research papers to a variety of health problems, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. Some researchers argue that obesity is the nation's No. 1 health problem and has reached epidemic proportions.

In Geauga County, researchers found the expected weight of a 5-foot-7 resident was 167.45 pounds. Roughly speaking, anyone who was that height and weighed more than 160 pounds would be considered overweight, according to the CDC.

Kelly Spear runs a women's fitness gym, Curves, in Chardon in Geauga County.

While she quibbled with her county's designation as the fattest, she said that her own people-watching at the county fair offered ample evidence there was something to it.

"Just to sit there and watch the people go by, every other person is obese," Spear said. "But I don't think it's just here. It's an epidemic across the country."

Spear said she's also noticed in recent years that even the abstemious Amish who live a few miles down the road are starting to show up at the Weight Watchers clinics she teaches.

Also faring poorly in the study were numerous cities in the Southeast, including Richmond, Va., the Greensboro-Winston Salem metro area in North Carolina and Atlanta's ever-growing suburbs.

California acquitted itself reasonably well compared to other regions, with most of the state's metro areas ranking in the middle of the pack. San Franciscans were more than a pound lighter than residents of the state's other metro areas.

Ewing, the University of Maryland researcher, said that suburbs in the Golden State were better than many areas because they tend to be denser and offer more opportunities for exercise.

Still, he said, Californians could stand to rein in growth and shed a few pounds.

"It's like your kid gets a D in a class where the other kids get Fs," Ewing said, comparing California to other regions.

Ewing said sprawl wasn't the only factor contributing to weight problems in the U.S.

A person's education, race and attitude toward food also plays a significant role in how much people eat, he said.

He said that one reason the study is important is that health officials and urban planners who have to make decisions about growth now have hard data that show that sprawl has an impact on human health. And cities have their advantages.

"The beauty of the urban environment is that you're moving as part of your daily business," he said. "A lot of people wouldn't move any other way."

But not everyone in the health business agrees, saying that people, not infrastructure, should take some of the blame for their own weight problems.

"I don't buy it," said Dr. David Heber, the director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition.

"I live in the burbs and I see people all the time jogging and walking their dogs. Twenty-four percent of the American public is inactive, which I like to say means that when the urge to exercise comes over them, they wait until it passes."

Nonetheless, there is an appetite for pedestrian-friendly communities, and developers are finding it's easier to get approval for well-designed projects.

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