The suburbs may be making Americans fat

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.Put on a few pounds?

Blame it on the usual suspects, from huge helpings to general sloth.

Or go with the latest theory: The suburbs are making us fat.

Lately, scientists have transformed our beautiful suburbs into the whipping boy for a host of ills. Studies link them to everything from increased breathing problems to the thinning ozone layer.

But the fat factor is the latest to get the spotlight. Maybe because the problem is so, well, visible. Or, more likely, because studies point to suburban sprawl as the latest villain.

Recent research, for instance, shows that people who live in older communities walk and bike more.

"When you look at these pre-World War II communities, you see they have sidewalks, the neighborhoods are more compact, the street grids more interconnected," says Lawrence Frank, a city and regional planning professor at Georgia Tech, whose conclusions are based on Seattle data. "They're designed for people to walk, not drive everywhere."

This spring, Frank and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begin collecting information on how much, where and when people walk. Over the next 10 months, 1,000 people will wear various devices to record their movements.

The results should give researchers a better look at how neighborhoods affect weight, Frank says.

At her home west of Boca Raton, Laura Warner, 46, shakes her head at the premise. The Warner family lives 12 miles west of I-95 in a walled community on the Everglades' edge. You can't get much more suburban than this, but that hasn't turned her family into sloths.

She plays tennis; husband Arthur plays softball; the kids play about everything.

At his Victoria Park home near downtown Fort Lauderdale, Matt and Suzanne Weiss question the assumption, too. And they live in an older neighborhood geared to walking.

Though Weiss, 43, loves sports and volunteers as a Little League coach, a sports-injured knee keeps him from exercising. Granted, their five kids play at nearby Holiday Park most evenings a week. But they'd be active anywhere.

Says Matt Weiss: "You can exercise wherever you want."

While researchers gather their statistics, this much we already know: Within the past decade, the incidence of obesity has mushroomed, threatening the health of millions of Americans. (Obesity is defined as being more than 30 percent above your ideal body weight.)

"Obesity is an epidemic and should be taken as seriously as any infectious disease epidemic," says Jeffrey Koplan, director of the CDC. "Obesity and overweight are linked to the nation's No. 1 killer, heart disease, as well as diabetes and other chronic conditions."

During the `90s, this obesity epidemic spread rapidly across all states, regions and demographic groups, according to the CDC. It grew from 12 percent of the population in `91 to nearly 18 percent in `98. In Florida, nearly one in five adults is obese.

There is, of course, an age-old successful prescription for losing weight: reduce calories and increase physical activity.

Problem is, most of us don't do that. Thanks, in part, to the growing fast-food and snack industry, studies show we consume 100 to 200 calories more a day than 20 years ago. But as we continue to eat more, we do less physically.

We use power mowers, dishwashers and clothes dryers. We're glued to TVs and computers. We drive rather than walk or bike.

Though studies show that even a little activity yields healthy benefits, a 1996 Surgeon General's report showed that 60 percent of adults don't do 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity most days of the week.

"You need to make it easy for people to exercise or most won't do it," says Jose Szapocznik, director of the Center for Family Studies at University of Miami.

Szapocznik, who's studying the "walkability" of neighborhoods, suggests looking at fast-food restaurants as a model.

Once a bastion of high-fat, high-calorie food, most now offer salads so you needn't patronize a special restaurant for a healthy meal.

"In the same way, we need to make walking and exercise a part of every day life."

So here's where suburbia-as-fat-builder enters in.

Before World War II, most of us lived in neighborhoods laid out in a grid with a mix of businesses and schools nearby. And we walked.

Then came large-lot homes, oversized malls and far-away schools. And that, the theory goes, contributes to our expanding girth.

Take the Arencibia family in Pembroke Pines, for instance.

Nearly two years ago, they moved from Maplewood, N.J., where they lived a few blocks from town. Elissa Arencibia, 37, walked to the bank, two blocks away. To the post office, four blocks. To the library, four blocks.

"I gained 20 pounds when I first moved here," says Arencibia, now involved in a weight-loss program. "I didn't change my diet, and I wasn't walking as much any more."

Her daughter, 16, also named Elissa, added about 15 pounds after the move. In Maplewood, she walked four blocks to her elementary school, six blocks to her middle school and about a dozen blocks to high school.

Her best friend lived one block away and they walked everywhere. To the movies, the ice cream shop, the hair salon.

Today, it's a 20-minute drive to Western, her high school. Her best friend's a 15-minute drive. A movie theater, another 15-minute drive.

"I hate the fact you have to drive everywhere," she says. "Everything's so far away. And you don't see kids walk here. It's just not something they do."

But Bobbi Gersing, 63, a Davie receptionist, sees the suburbs differently. She thinks self-contained communities with less-congested streets, sidewalks and bike paths encourage exercise.

"I see people walking in my neighborhood all the time," says Gersing, whose walled community offers quiet streets and sidewalks. "I think it's better to have a community like that."

Glen Trotta agrees. He's president of sales and marketing for DiVosta Homes, builder of 24,000 homes in South Florida and around the state.

For years, some developers have addressed the exercise problem by including walking/bike paths in their communities, he notes. The latest twist: "town centers" within developments. The centers offer a variety of conveniences, from gourmet groceries to fitness centers. Walking/bike paths through the development lead to the town centers.

"The idea is to encourage people to get out of their homes after work," says Trotta, whose company is building some developments with town centers. "It's an active lifestyle inside a community. You're not outside walking in a high-traffic area."

But like many others, Trotta says physical fitness ultimately depends on a person's lifestyle. And Pat McClure agrees. She's general manager of Mission Bay, a west Boca community of about 1,200 homes built in the mid-`80s.

Walking/bike paths snake through the 500-acre community. Here, residents can play tennis, swim, work out in the weight room or choose from a menu of fitness classes, all paid for by their association dues.

But only about 30 percent of Mission Bay's residents use the facilities. Based on information from other planned communities, that's typical, McClure says.

"We offer it all," she says. "But it's up to residents to use it."

At Saturnia, the Warner family makes good use of the development's tennis and basketball courts.

Warner, who has played everything from field hockey to racquetball growing up, has always been active. Yet she's struggled with a weight problem most of her life.

Her children and husband, "the human garbage disposal," are slender.

"East or West, it doesn't matter where you live," she says. "Too many other things affect your weight."


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