Report from the Annual Conference on Active Living: Obesity and Active Living

2_17_10_ped_san_diego.jpgGetting more people to walk and bike was a major theme of the conference.
Photo:San Diego Personal Injury Attorney

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serious dollars from the Johnson & Johnson (baby shampoo etc) empire, is a public health foundation which funds research into healthy eating and active living. Their Annual Conference on Active Living took place in San Diego last week.

The foundation has a rigorous program which supports quantitative research to inform public policies that can foster healthy communities. Remember: In this country 40 billion dollars are spent on food promotion each year. Combine this with low energy prices which hide the true cost of motoring and transportation, add the agricultural subsidies which unleash rivers of sticky corn syrup and cheap meat onto an unsuspecting population, and hoopla, we have an obesity epidemic. For the first time in history, the current generation of children will have a lower life expectancy than the generation of their parents. Strong stuff. The system is broken, they say. The energy balance gone awry, can the bicycle set it right? Can pedestrianism come to the rescue when 8-18 year-olds spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of electronic devices.

A monumental task against well entrenched structures, staged as a painful contradiction between the concern for communities without access to healthy lifestyles, and the plush chandelier surroundings of US Grant, A Luxury Collections Hotel in San Diego. During three days of Active Living Conference, this contradiction never quite went away, because amid all the concern for measurement, verification, community participation, reaching the sedentary population (80% of the total), making research relevant for policy, nobody ever went on the stage to say: The system is broken. The whole damn system is broken, and we are here trying to fix it by addressing the symptoms. Of course, addressing symptoms is better then not addressing symptoms.

Based on the success of tobacco control, the public health community now zeros in on the obesity epidemic, with support from Michelle Obama, who has just launched Letsmove.gov, a campaign to raise a healthier generation of kids. The name "Let’s Move" highlights how public health advocates are looking towards transportation (and land use) for a solution. Indeed, the two political silos of transportation and public health have slowly started to connect. The relationship between health and transportation will be the site for many interesting developments in the future, and it is precisely in this area that the bicycle rides. Public Health departments are funding bicycle coordinators (PLACE Grants), and we are now waiting for a department of transportation to acknowledge that their policies have significant health impacts.

The return on investment for complete streets, the health impacts of congestion pricing, Safe Routes to School and diabetes, these are some of the areas which the National Institute of Health, the Center of Disease Control and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are ready to fund now. They want to study the impact of bicycle boulevards on property values, dog walking among youth, engaging park directors, physical education and justice, etc. These are prime research opportunities for non-motorized transportation, and a partnership of advocacy and academic expertise must be a winning combination in this context: They call it natural experiments, or community based participatory research.

Throughout the three day conference, a robust optimism was displayed that scientific research will improve our lives. The poster sessions were prime exhibitions of scientific verbiage. This scientific spirit may be the founding myth of the public health profession and its trust in the statistical bedrock. Some punters may just want to cut right through the words and numbers and assert simply: The price of gas is to low. But this simple truth is not scientific enough to inform policy changes. To do that, it requires numbers, percentages, and statistics.

For those who want to advance policies that encourage cycling, the greatest issue is how to calculate the benefit of each mile driven on the bicycle. Its health benefit, the monetary saving, the environmental benefit, and even the social benefit neatly expressed in dollar and cent. That is the Eldorado of non-motorized research and advocacy, and the foundations know that too. The Victoria Transport Institute has done some work in the area, at the conference Thomas Goetschi (Rails to Trails, now University of Zurich) presented an interesting paper on the Cost-effectiveness of Bicycle Infrastructure – The Example of Portland. More work is needed here, including GIS technologies and mobile phone applications, to gather the much needed data.

6 P.M. After a long day of numbers and data and valuable advice how to speak with elected officials, I ride up the endless hill with is Third Street in San Diego on my way to University Heights. Halfway up, a pedestrian who just parked his car spots me and dispenses his blessing as I ride by: "Good for you to be cycling to work" he shouts. His spontaneous display of support and encouragement (and envy?) shows that the tide is indeed turning.

This incident also reminds us that changing cultural values are hard to express in those statistical formulas the public health profession loves so much. A better qualitative understanding of the "transportation personalities" that we construct for our appearance on the street by choosing (and registering) year, model, color of our car, and by selecting our mode of transportation, is essential to overcome the cultural and psychological barriers to active living choices.

Next year, again in San Diego, the theme will be "Evaluating Youth Advocacy." To make this occasion even more valuable, the foundation may want to consider a scholarship-program to support attendance by advocacy groups.

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