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Researchers: Sprawl Related to Health Woes

DURHAM, N.C. -- North Carolina researchers are heading a national study to find the best ways to redesign communities so that Americans get out of their cars and travel by foot or bicycle.

The $2.8 million, five-year study involves Active Living by Design, headquartered in Chapel Hill, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park.

"Community design and limited transportation choice often prevent people from leading physically active lives," said Richard Killingsworth, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Active Living by Design Program.

Killingsworth was guest editor last year of a special issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion that reported that people living amid suburban sprawl where walking is difficult are more likely to have weight problems and high blood pressure. NIEHS researcher Allen Dearry was also was a key project scientist.

In the new study, Active Living by Design is to help 25 test communities across the country focus on improving public health by involving city planning, transportation, architecture, recreation, crime prevention, traffic safety and education.

Chapel Hill, where Killingsworth and Dearry both live in subdivisions designed to be walkable, is the only North Carolina community involved in the project.

Then NIEHS, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, is to conduct follow-up examinations of the program's impact on physical activity, obesity and other health indicators.

"We'd like to determine if simple changes in the built environment and in individual behavior can enhance physical activity and reduce obesity for residents," NIEHS director Kenneth Olden said in announcing the project. "Local municipalities could then look at the results and determine if modifying the built environment might affect the public's health and reduce health care costs."

The built environment includes houses, schools and workplaces as well as public areas like parks and museums.

Federal health officials say 64 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. Though the causes may involve various genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors, evidence continues to point toward sedentary lifestyles as a major contributor, and walking as the most healthful way out.

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On the Net:

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences: www.niehs.nih.gov

Active Living by Design Program: www.activelivingbydesign.org

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: www.rwjf.org

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