By Sean MacInnes
In 2013, the obesity rate in the United States dropped for the first time in decades. In truth, the rate dropped for only one demographic: preschool children living in low-income households. It’s good news, but otherwise, the rate held steady. So make no mistake, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
In 2010, when the total population of the United States reached 308 million people, the Center for Disease Control reported that more than 108 million of us were obese – that’s over one third of the population.
Just let these statistics sink in for a minute: the CDC states, that’s 35 percent of U.S. citizens 18 and over, and 17 percent of all children, or 78 million adults and 12.5 million children respectfully, who have a Body Mass Index over 30. And those statistics are only for the obesity rate and do not include people who are otherwise simply overweight.
Additionally, costs for health related issues caused from being overweight, including heart disease, certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, arthritis, breathing problems, and psychological disorders like depression, totaled $147 billion nationwide in 2008.
Can all of those people be individually blamed for their plight? Or could it be that we’re all to blame for the urban systems we’ve haphazardly built around us?
In 2003, The World Health Organization conducted a study concerned with the impacts of non-communicable epidemics, one being the “hidden” epidemic of traffic casualties and traffic-related health and environmental hazards. It was discovered we not only spend an estimated $518 billion annually worldwide due to automobile accidents; but exercise levels, social contact, and access to services for children, elderly, the ill, and the poor are inversely related to the societal level of motor vehicle usage in all countries, i.e., the higher the motor vehicle usage, the more at risk are the already vulnerable classes.
Thankfully, Memphis has taken great strides, pun intended, to improve its green infrastructure. The Greenline is a smash hit. Shelby Farms, Overton Park, and Tom Lee Park are flourishing. We suddenly have miles and miles of bike paths and lanes, and dozens of community gardens and farmers markets popping up all over the place – with plenty more on the way.
How exactly has this happened? Because of a politically active citizenry! Because the citizens of Memphis, if they’re not already working for a non-profit (in 2007 there were 931 tax-exempt organizations employing over 43,000 people), donate 7% of their annual income to support them – one of the highest averages in the nation. And for the past few years many of those advocacy groups have joined with educational institutions, private businesses, and local governments to work together under the umbrella of the Mid-South Greenprint Consortium. The health of our minds, bodies, and spirits literally depends on initiatives like the Greenprint, which is meant to improve open spaces, mobility, food security, and social equity.
As Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, once stated, “A premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible.”
Just to be clear, the aim isn’t to get rid of motor vehicles entirely, but to reduce our dependence on individual ownership of cars, and to start building cities for people and not automobiles.
That, of course, is a tough pill for Americans to swallow. But believe it or not, people across the country (and the world) living in areas with varying population densities (which proves it’s possible to do anywhere from major cities to small towns) manage quite well without owning a car. They have dependable public transportation systems, including buses, trains, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and car-share programs like Zipcar – which has thankfully arrived in Memphis.
However, although Memphis has taken a step in the right direction, there is still plenty more work to do. While those who can do donate a percentage of their incomes to causes for health and social equality, there are too many of us who still don’t have an income at all. In September of 2011, The Commercial Appeal reported on US Census data showing that 1 in 5 residents in the metro area live below the poverty line, equaling 19 percent of our total population, with the unemployment rate at 12 percent. And stories like this one in The Memphis Flyer abound about the county’s high obesity rate, which is at 35 percent.
Creating opportunities for a physically active citizenry, particularly for those who can't afford even a monthly gym membership, is an essential factor in preventative medicine and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, which is beneficial to the wellbeing of individuals and the economic prosperity of the city.
So dear readers, get active! Embrace your health, embrace your cause, and partake in the opportunities for active citizenry that are happening all around you in our city.