TCS Daily

Slender in Suburbia

By Ted Balaker - March 16, 2006 12:00 AM

Not enough people paying attention to your pet issue? Just compare it to terrorism. That's what our nation's surgeon general did recently. Dr. Richard Carmona warned that unless we do something about obesity "the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempt."

If obesity really is that threatening then maybe we should step up the fight against suburban sprawl. After all, politicians and activists are always telling us that suburbia makes us fat and at first glance it seems like they might be right. Suburbanites drive everywhere — to work, the grocery store, even the mailbox. If you drive everywhere, it's easy to see how you could become flabbier. And yet a new study challenges our intuition.

Researchers from the University of Illinois studied ten counties in the Chicago metropolitan area and found the slender people were not concentrated in the densely-packed center city, where it's relatively easy to get around by foot or by transit. Rather the fit folks were most likely to live in suburban neighborhoods, 10 to 20 miles outside the city.

And this study isn't some oddball loner in the academic research. It squares with previous research conducted at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. Yet we shouldn't jump to the other side and assume that suburbia makes us slender. Even the University of Illinois study develops its conclusions from a popular but imperfect gauge of obesity, the Body Mass Index. Indeed, the link between suburbia and fatness is so tenuous that about all we do know is that we don't know much. Recently the Institute of Medicine and the Transportation Research Board reviewed the literature and found that evidence that suggests suburban sprawl makes us slothful is "currently sparse."

Yet when discussion turns to the relationship between suburbia and health, we are so quick to assume that suburbia is bad for us. Why? One reason is the nature of news. A study that finds no link between suburbia and something horrible probably isn't going to interest many local news directors. They're more likely to run another segment on the cockroaches their hidden cameras spotted at local restaurants. But produce a study that reveals something dangerous and the news director's eyes widen. A 2004 study suggested suburbanites die sooner than other people and it quickly made its way through local media outlets, as well as big-time national venues like CNN and Newsweek.

Intuition is another reason we're quick to assume suburbia is harmful to our health. We all know plenty of suburban couch potatoes and we recognize that suburban living can make it easy to avoid exercise. Yes tract home dwellers often substitute driving for walking, but it's more than that. All sorts of new gadgets and products make it easier for us to do less. Today's teenagers forget that people used to have to get up off the couch to change the TV channel. We no longer have to push our lawnmowers, we just ride them. Bags of pre-chopped salad spare us from chopping lettuce ourselves and battery operated toothbrushes let us avoid burning another handful of calories.

It also seems intuitively obvious that city living would help offset the sloth-enabling aspects of modern life. And since they often run errands by walking, urbanites often do find it easier to incorporate activity into their everyday lives. But such an arrangement isn't necessarily healthier.

Imagine you live in the epicenter of American urbanism, New York. After a long day at work, you hop on the subway and travel to the station closest to your apartment. You walk from the subway station to the grocery store, buy some groceries and head home. From a health perspective, some exercise is better than none, but intensity matters too. At the end of your long day, you might be too tired to go to the health club for the type of target-heart-rate-achieving exercise that doctors say is so important. And even if you still have the energy, you might not have the time.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, commutes tend to be longer in higher density areas and how you travel also figures into how long you travel. Traveling the suburban way (by car) is usually much faster than traveling by public transit, which is more common in big cities. According to the Census Bureau, transit commuting — even in New York — typically takes twice as long as car commuting. Over the course of a month that's an extra 16 hours that could be spent on treadmills, swimming laps or playing tennis. And so while suburban living can make it easier for us to get flabby, it can also provide us with more time to get fit.

We should continue to investigate how our physical environment impacts health, but we shouldn't let this debate distract us from the big picture. Even if obesity were as threatening as terrorism that still wouldn't give us reason to attack suburbia. Neighborhood design might make it a little easier or a little harder to stay in shape, but other factors, from education to income, are much more closely tied to good health. And ultimately, the key to healthy living is self-discipline, and that's something that can be practiced anywhere.

Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation and co-author (with Samuel R. Staley) of a new book about mobility (fall 2006, Rowman & Littlefield).


This post comes so close to an obvioiius truth only to reject it out of hand. Of course obesity is more dangerous to Americns than terrorism. More people die each year from obesity induced diabetes than the 3000 who dies on 9/11, and obesity related medical costs are larger than the property loss of 9/11.

And ironically, the President is better at fighting obesity than he is a fighting terrorism. His lifstyle choices -- low fat diet, exercise, work moderation -- are a model for Americans everywhere.

the correlation is not city v. suburb
The correlation is with income. Poor people are heavier, city or suburb. The diabetes rates reflect this fact in parallel fashion. The recent four part story about epidemic diabetes in the New York Times covered this in detail.

Walking a couple of blocks from time to time, is not going to make one healthy.

LG allows his ideology to block his vision
1) The threat of terrorism cannot be defined by merely by looking at how many people have been killed in the recent past.
You also have to factor in how many people might be killed in the future, along with a likelihood factor for each scenario.

2) This president has done an excellent job of fighting terrorism. Afghanistan has been a resounding success.
Iraq has been an overwhelming success. If you limit yourself to the MSM and other moonbat sources, you won't know that.

In other words
The author is correct. Living in the suburbs does not cause obesiety, as many "activists" have claimed.

Straw man time: what "activists?" claimed when?
I mean, this is the sum of the attribution:

>After all, politicians and activists are always telling us that suburbia makes us fat

Who is saying this, specifically?

try reading the article
and something other than Kos.

Please take your own advice
Read the article. I have.

The article, as I accurately noted, gives no specific sources beyond "politicians and activists." If you've found them, please quote.

Walking to one's mailbox instead of driving to it might...
Save the driving for those trips that are too far to walk. A walk to the mailbox & back burns more calories than getting in the car to drive to the mailbox. Sitting tends to make people fatter whether they live in a city, suburb or on a farm. Going for regular walks would improve health even if enough food was eaten to offset what was burned off so that weight wasn't lost. There's more to healthy than just what a person weighs or how fat they are. Muscle tone is improved with regular walks & other excercize.

The correlation is with IQ, for which education and income are proxies
The New York Times ran a front page article on longevity recently quoting experts saying the basic proven correlation if not reason for the increase in longevity is increased levels of education, and to some extent increased wealth and income.
Education, income, and wealth are often used in research as proxies for IQ. Smart people who are wise tend to live in suburbs as a better place to raise their children, though as singles they may have preferred the city. Smart people also view obesity, like alcoholism, drug addiction, homosexuality, and smoking, as a turnoff, unhealthy,a recipe for a short, unhealthy life, a poor example for thier children, and a likely major cause of increasing health insurance prmiums. Wise people avoid bad habits and adopt good ones to increase their chances of better health and longevity.

Sure: if you're smart you get to choose your parents wisely...
And get born only to rich ones.

>Education, income, and wealth are often used in research as proxies for IQ.

What kind of 'research?" Eugenics? Let's blame the victims some more. Poor? You're dumb. Sick? You're really dumb. Live in the city? Drop dead:
it's all your fault.

> Wise people avoid bad habits and adopt good ones to increase their chances of better health and longevity.

And Paris Hilton earned every penny she has.

We Can Improve on Our Heritage
Denial of a problem’s cause is sure to delay if not prevent its solution.
Poverty, lack of education, low IQ, and bad behavior are correlated. If the chain of correlation can be broken, perhaps these conditions can be mostly reversed. Government assistance, schools, and prisons haven’t helped. Only IQ is left. And we know how to raise IQ to help compensate for both genetic and Lamarckian detrimental influences.
IQ does tend to be hereditary; and the bad habits and environmental exposures of parents are sometimes visited upon their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren
But IQ is subject to a lot of modification before and after birth. For example, a recent British study found that the mother’s lack of omega-3 essential fatty acids in her diet during pregnancy leads to a loss of 5 or so IQ points in her baby as well as less finger dexterity and somewhat more antisocial behavior. The remedy is fish once or twice a week, or fish oil capsules.
Jane Brody in a column in the NY Times told of a study finding that 88% of 6 year olds in 1980 had 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood that was associated with the loss of 7.2 IQ points, and that for each additional 10 micrograms in the blood another 4.2 IQ points were lost. So at 30 ug/dl there was a loss of near one standard deviation in IQ.
The highest concentrations of lead are in cities, where decades of lead emissions from heavy traffic by vehicles using leaded gasoline have penetrated into the lungs, blood, brains, soil, furniture, ceilings and walls to expose future generations to lead poisoning. Lead in the body leads to sterility, lower IQ, hellish behavior, and madness, as in the Rome of Augustus and Nero from the lead in wine amphora and aqueducts and their piping.
Thus the possibility exists to improve health and behavior and boost inner-city IQs by as much as one standard deviation by heavy supplementation with fish oil. The same would be true of those children whose mothers most lacked fish in the diet while pregnant.
We know from another British report (Dr. Puri, Hammersmith Hospital, London, about 1996) that 18 months of daily supplementation of 2000 mg of EPA, the major component of fish oil, restored the shrinking brain and behavior to normal of a 28 year old male schizophrenic who was going mad. And it is common experience for those who take fish oil capsules to notice an increase in energy, memory, and brain function in general. Of course, there are other supplements that increase IQ, particularly as measured by school performance. Those concerned about mercury and other containments in fish can substitute fish oil, which can be made pure, and in any event the benefits of fish outweigh the risks.
Any patents on Tamoxifen, developed in the late 1960s, have long since run out. It has at least some short term benefits to some breast cancer patients, and deleterious side effects, some fatal, to others. It is a known carcinogen. Yet in April, 1992, the National Cancer Institute tried to recruit 16,000 healthy women for its breast cancer prevention trial at an estimated cost of $60 million. It is not just incidental that at the time, Zeneca, a subsidiary of the world’s largest multinational cancer-drug company, Imperial Chemical Industries, was responsible for manufacturing and marketing Tamoxifen, and supplied the drug free of charge.
The point here is that government can promote trials that benefit drug companies at the expense of women’s health, but cannot see its way to trials that may reverse the awful conditions of the poor and disadvantaged.
In recognition of the harmful effects of sugar, California’s idea of getting rid of sugar on school grounds is a good one, provided it includes all sodas and foods sweetened with aspartame. Some studies show aspartame converts to formaldehyde and settles in the fatty tissues where it is hard to get rid of. If aspartame is not eliminated, gain in student performance may be limited.
Of course, dietary supplements are not the only way to increase IQ which, however, does not show up in school work without study. Physical and mental exercise can help. Brain wave training has been shown to significantly lessen the mistakes and improve the musical understanding, stylistic precision, and imaginative interpretation of students from London’s Royal College of Music.
Those areas of the brain most used grow the most. A study of London taxi drivers, required to take a test after 2 years to show they know the shortest routes between points, found the right rear hippocampus grew with years of experience.
Life is not fair. We cannot change our parents, but we can change our chances of success. Most of our ancestors got off the boat with little but hope and a fierce determination to get a better life for their children. Today, parents save and sacrifice mightily for a college education for their children.
The aim should be to give the disadvantaged the knowledge and tools needed for success. We are giving them neither. We can change that. The Atlanta School District in the 1960s found that improving student diets improved t their academic performance. That forgotten lesson is being reapplied in California today. So there is hope.

thanks for your thoughtful response
I don't agree with all of it but I appreciated and was interested in the thought and ideas that went into it, and the fact that you're not simply using a characterization as an excuse to do nothing.

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