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City design could be getting in the way of your health

What's the most important factor to our well-being? Money? Happiness?

I would argue good health. In fact, I would say true happiness is hard to experience in the absence of good health.

If you're an urban dweller, your city may be working against your pursuit of good health. Modern city design has made our lives more efficient, yes. But one very important aspect has been lost: labour. We are using our bodies less and less (thank you, cars and escalators) and there are consequences to those actions. Or should I say inactions. Our bodies were designed to move, and at one time, our communities supported this. At no other time in history have we moved less.

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Health and longevity are strongly associated with fitness. I know it seems like we are overwhelmed with an obesity crisis, but most research tells us that fitness comes in all shapes and sizes. That means an overweight, fit person will stay disease-free longer than a skinny, sedentary person. So our main problem is a lack of activity. We all benefit from better food choices. But having good fitness levels will have a protective effect. Poor physical fitness is a risk factor comparable to hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and even smoking.

How can city design better influence health? Urban planners need to work in tandem with health professionals. (And in some places, this is indeed happening.) Here are a few suggestions: Walking to the store should always be an option. (Some communities don't even have sidewalks.) You shouldn't have to be a thrill seeker to navigate city streets on a bike. Why not design parks that have equipment adults can use to exercise? Why should kids have all the fun?

By integrating movement into our everyday activities through supportive city design, we are creating an opportunity for better fitness. A low level of fitness will do more than hurt your own health. In fact, you can transfer more than just eye colour to your children. Parents' levels of fitness can influence their children's health. If you are a couch potato, you may gift your children with couch potato genes. We are taking our health and fitness for granted, and we are hurting the common good. If you can't care for yourself, you're less able to take care of others.

At least some of the answers lie in city designs that push us in a new direction. This won't happen overnight. It's a gradual process and there will be hits and misses. This is what writer Carl Honoré would call a slow fix. It's hard to change habits so we need to have a long-term plan. We are heading toward a precipice. We are creating a generation that will die younger than their parents. We are all in this together. It is time to turn back the clock.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Gilles Beaudin is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic Canada.

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