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Wanted: Fitness-Friendly Neighborhoods

It will take more than public service campaigns to solve the U.S. obesity problem, according to fitness experts who say neighborhoods must be designed so people can get around without their cars.

Virtually everything American society has done for the past 100 years has made it easier for its people to be fatter, said James Sallis, a San Diego State University psychology professor, and others who gathered recently at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting.

"We've built an unhealthy world in a lot of different ways," said Sallis, who was once dubbed an "obesity warrior" by Time magazine.

Sallis contends change will come only when the public demands walkable development, more federal money for parks and bike paths and even a tax on industries that promote sedentary lifestyles (he pointed to video game makers, movie theater chains and even electric Segway scooters).

Proof that people will accept an active lifestyle and walk to parks and shopping if they can is found in the "new urbanism" style of planned communities, the experts contend. They pointed to Denver's Stapleton neighborhood, an enclave of new homes built where the city's old airport used to be.

The neighborhood is a mix of shops, offices, parks, apartments and houses linked by wide sidewalks and meandering bike paths. Architecture varies from single-family homes to rows of brownstones. Tom Gleason, a spokesman for developer Forest City, said the design has been a hit.

"People will walk if you give them that opportunity," he said.

Jack Berryman, a professor of medical history at the University of Washington, said active lifestyles date back centuries and President Theodore Roosevelt famously worried about Americans' "slothful life."

Before both world wars, military leaders complained about "soft" recruits. President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the President's Council on Physical Fitness in 1956.

"Given all that, which I am suggesting got the word out, it's just failure, failure, failure. Fatter, not fitter," Berryman said.

Two years ago, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science hosted a conference on how society has engineered activity out of American life. Institute spokeswoman Christine Bruske said a similar conference last year focused on how children are affected, but new ideas take time.

Without a coordinated effort among federal, state and local governments, communities can't compete, Sallis said. Transportation money goes to highways, not bike paths or even sidewalks in newer developments.

"Everything is engineered against us," Sallis said.

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