January 21, 2001
Suburbs Ponder Weighty Matter
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
After succumbing for 20 years to the drive-through
convenience of suburban living, Linda Koulakjian had grown a little plump.
So the mother of three donned T-shirt and shorts one sunny day and set out
to get some exercise.
But in the cul-de-sacs of suburban Germantown,
polite society does not often, well, walk. Koulakjian was powering down a
deserted sidewalk about five blocks from home when one neighbor and then
another pulled their minivans to the curb, lowered their windows and asked
if she needed help.
"They said, 'What's wrong? What are you doing
here? Do you need a ride?'‚" Koulakjian recalled. "Frankly, I was
embarrassed. I didn't want to walk any more after that."
In some communities on the fringes of America's
cities, walking has become as old-fashioned as shoeing horses and
crank-starting the car. The suburbs have long been blamed for fostering
social isolation and epic traffic jams. Now they stand accused of another
sin: By making walking impossible, some say, suburban sprawl is making
Alarmed by the rapid rise of obesity in recent
years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to
develop a research program to test the theory that suburban design plays a
significant role in America's spreading paunch. Among the latest projects:
a plan to map obesity data so researchers can study the nation's beefiest
locales. And an Atlanta project that will outfit 800 people with satellite
packs so researchers can study where, when, why and how much they walk.
"We are coming to the conclusion that land use,
urban design and the built environment are much larger factors in public
health than people have really appreciated," said Dr. Richard J. Jackson,
director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health.
"When we were kids, most kids walked or biked to
school. Now it's 10 percent. How do we deal with the obesity epidemic when
our kids don't get even that fundamental level of exercise?"
The CDC is not alone. Over the past few years, a
growing number of academics and health researchers has blamed suburban
sprawl for contributing to a variety of modern ills, from sharp increases
in childhood asthma to a growing adult dependency on anti-stress drugs
But the nation's skyrocketing obesity rate has
drawn the most intense focus. Obesity is spreading so far and so fast in
America that alarmed health professionals compare it to an infectious
Over the past decade, obesity among American
adults has increased by nearly 60 percent. Today, the CDC says, one in
five American adults is obese, loosely defined as being about 30 percent
above the ideal weight for a person's height.
Children, too, are gaining weight at prodigious
rates. The CDC estimates that 11 percent of American kids are dramatically
overweight, a figure that has nearly doubled over the past two decades.
What makes the fat epidemic so worrisome is that
it has no clear cause. For children, researchers have established a direct
link between excessive television viewing and extra pounds. But adults are
consuming only about 100 calories more per day than they were 20 years
ago, surveys show, and their use of leisure time for exercise has remained
fairly stable. Yet obesity has gone through the roof.
"Our world has just gotten a lot easier to live
in," said Dr. Tom Schmid, who directs the Active Community Environment
Workgroup within the CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity.
"We sit in cars, we don't walk to the store on the corner, we don't walk
to the park."
Not long ago, such moderate forms of exercise were
considered irrelevant to good health. But recent studies have shown that
as little as 40 minutes of walking per day - even split into 10-minute
increments - can provide significant health benefits.
Hence the new focus on suburbia, where large-lot
homes, congested roads, megamalls and acres of free parking make a stroll
to the store about as practical and attractive as a bike lane on the
There are no hard data showing that people who
live in places like Burke or Bowie are fatter than their counterparts on
the pedestrian-friendly streets of the District or Old Town Alexandria.
But at a packed post-holiday Weight Watchers meeting in Gaithersburg,
dieters were furious about local barriers to exercise.
One woman, an avid walker, spontaneously decided
to walk the 4.5 miles from her house to the meeting, held in a spacious
strip-mall conference room one flight down from an Einstein's Bagels shop.
It was not a pleasant journey, she said.
"I walked in mud and muck to get here because
Midcounty Highway doesn't have sidewalks," said Kathi Carey-Fletcher, 53.
"I ended up walking against traffic in the turn lane. It's deplorable."
Linda Koulakjian said she hasn't tried to walk in
her town house community since the minivan incident a few years ago.
Instead, she lost 20 pounds by sticking to the Weight Watchers diet and
walking around the office building where she works as a financial planner.
"Here, you feel stupid walking. People will think
you're a homeless person," Koulakjian said. "In addition to the way the
houses are laid out, there's an entire feeling about what is acceptable."
Another woman said the easy suburban lifestyle and
abundance of food caused everyone in her family to "turn into a giant"
when they moved to the Washington area 23 years ago from Iran. Emma
Megerditchian has since lost 40 pounds, in part by taking the stairs
instead of elevators and running errands on foot.
"Some people think that's a big effort. But in
this country, everything has become so easy and convenient," said
Megerditchian, 44, a clinical assistant in a doctor's office. "I love this
country. Since I was 13, I wanted to come here. But drive-through
cleaners? Drive-through post-office? During the day when it's nice, go get
some fresh air."
There is scientific evidence to support the notion
that people who live in suburban communities such as those around
Gaithersburg are less likely to walk or bike than people who live in
traditional, prewar communities, where gridlike streets support a mix of
homes, stores and businesses.
The suburban model is generally defined by highly
segregated land uses: Homes are built on curvy, dead-end streets that feed
into high-volume roadways leading to separate retail areas, typically
malls fronted by parking. Walking is not only unpleasant, it's often
In 1994, a San Francisco study found that
residents of traditional communities make 16 percent of their journeys on
foot or by bike, compared with 10 percent in suburban communities.
More surprising, an examination of transportation
data in Seattle found that a person's activity level can be affected by
the year his or her home was built. For example, people living in
communities developed before 1947 traveled on foot or by bike more than
three times every two days. People living in areas developed after 1977
got out of the car barely once.
The same study found that people in older
neighborhoods traveled less than four miles, on average, to reach a park
or other recreation area. In the newest communities, people had to drive
more than eight miles to find a place to relax.
According to Lawrence D. Frank, a transportation
professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who assembled
the Seattle data, some new subdivisions are trying to remedy the problem
by providing recreation trails.
"The problem is, people aren't using them because
they don't take you somewhere you need to go," Frank said. "The conclusion
is that it must be convenient for people to be moderately active."
Frank hopes to explore that theory with his latest
study, a $4 million project to begin in March with the CDC that will
examine the travel habits of 8,000 households in two Atlanta
One is a high-density urban area with limited
parking and plenty of stores, comparable to Georgetown, Frank said. The
other is characterized by single-family homes on small lots – much
like Tysons Corner, he said – where "there is potential for people to
walk but the design may be wrong."
Most participants will keep a trip diary. But 800
will be outfitted with global-positioning devices "so we'll be able to
tell if you cross the road for shade. Or because there are more shops. Or
because there's something to avoid, like the sidewalk stops," Frank said.
Ultimately, the goal is to establish a clear link
between neighborhood characteristics and obesity. If that link is made,
the research could be used to prod policymakers to encourage healthy
neighborhood design, much as Maryland and some other states are trying to
do through smart-growth initiatives.
In the meantime, the CDC has seen some
"tantalizing signs that changing the environment will change behavior,"
said Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition and
Last year, in the CDC's Rhodes Building in
Atlanta, researchers spruced up stairwells and put up motivational posters
stressing the benefits of exercise. By study's end, Dietz said, 14 percent
more CDC employees were taking the stairs.
© 2001 The Washington Post