Sidewalks, Bike Paths, and Public Policy Encourage Spontaneous Play, Daily Activity

Hattie Bernstein

If you think the best way to lose weight, get fit, and improve your diet is to join a gym or hire a personal trainer, you're not alone. But you're not right, said Mary Collins, author of American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, the keynote speaker on November 14 at the New Hampshire Local Government Center's 71st annual conference, held in Manchester.

A former writer for National Geographic and the Smithsonian, Collins said she wrote her book to inspire local government officials to take the lead in creating communities that encourage activity by providing sidewalks, bike paths, and open spaces for spontaneous play. Gym memberships, fitness classes, and diet programs, aren't working, she said.

"I know the people sitting here are accountants, assessors, town clerks, and you're probably wondering, 'What do I have to do with this?'" the author asked, beginning her talk by describing how she arrived at the conclusion that it's the town and city planners rather than the "wellness crowd" that have the greatest influence on America's health.

Collins spent two years traveling the country to research her subject, interviewing working mothers in inner cities who were afraid to let their children outside to play in crime-filled neighborhoods, and health care professionals who admitted that their recommendations to patients to move more, eat more fruits and vegetables, and reduce portion sizes hasn't cut either obesity rates or associated chronic diseases.

"I realized that the people in this room hold the answers. You are the answer," Collins told an audience of municipal officials that included selectmen, planners, assessors, and other local government employees. "I started with one idea when I began my public speaking and realized I was talking to the wrong people."

A former college basketball player and track start, Collins currently teaches creative non-fiction at Central Connecticut College. Her book won a 2010 Indie Book Award.

She said the idea for the book, and her campaign to reach municipal planners with her message, came out of a personal tragedy: she almost died in a devastating bicycle accident and during a long and painful recovery experienced for the first time what it was like to live a life without movement.

"Sixty-five percent of Americans choose to live the sedentary life," she said, contrasting that choice with the "devastating consequence" of her accident.

Immobility, Collins said, affected every aspect of her life. Because she couldn't sit, she couldn't go to church, eat in a restaurant, or socialize with friends, losses that brought on depression and anxiety.

"As an author and writer, it was natural that I would write about it," she said.

Collins said she discovered that it wasn't lack of willpower or knowledge that was fueling the resistance to physical activity.

"The system in place makes us make these choices," she said.

Her research revealed that 50 percent of Latinos in the United States are likely to develop diabetes, and during a trip she made to a Latino neighborhood in Washington, D.C., she said she met immigrant women from El Salvador, Colombia, and Guatemala who told her that the local parks weren't safe.

"They were terrified of the public spaces so they hid their kids in apartments where they ate the junk food they bought at the local grocery," Collins said, pointing out how poverty was setting up families for disease and shortened lifespans.

During a visit to the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Collins said she spoke with a coach who discussed "the travesty of organized sport in America."

Children playing sports aren't getting enough exercise, the coach observed. During an average practice, a player's heart rate is elevated for about five minutes per hour. By contrast, during free play, heart rates increase and are sustained at higher rates for roughly 45 minutes per hour, the coach said.

Collins told her audience that the number of Americans getting regular exercise hasn't changed much in more than 60 years: During the "Eisenhower Era" of the 1950s, 65 percent of Americans were overweight and weren't physically active; today, organized exercise classes and sports haven't changed that number.

"Knowing is not bringing about change," Collins said, urging municipal officials to introduce and support projects to add bike lanes and sidewalks in their communities.

She said the average ten-year- old in 1970 traveled on foot or by bicycle ten times farther from his or her home than a ten-year-old does today.

And their parents aren't setting an example.

"Can you walk at lunchtime? If not, what does that say about the town?" she asked, tossing the challenge to her audience.

"Few American citizens are as suited to bring about change as the people in this room," Collins concluded. "The real answer lies in bringing sports and movement back into our everyday world."

Hattie Bernstein is a Communications Specialist for the New Hampshire Local Government Center. She can be reached at 603.230.3342 or by email.