Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Public Health


Bikeshare and better health go together

Besides having a useful mode of travel, Capital Bikeshare members report getting more exercise after joining, a survey found. But governments can do more to help low-income communities, where obesity is often greatest, take advantage of Capital Bikeshare.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Graduate students at George Washington University conducted the survey in partnership with Capital Bikeshare officials from DC and Arlington. Officials released it and another general survey of CaBi members this morning. The GWU survey collected responses from 2,830 members and asked about their exercise before and after joining Capital Bikeshare.

Between the before and after time periods, members are more likely to exercise at least 3 hours a week. 53% said they got at least 3 hours a week of exercise before, which rose to 60% after. Also, more members (66%) report having very good or excellent health, compared to 59% at the time they joined.

Also, the report says, "Over 30 percent of respondents indicated they had lost weight since joining, 60 percent reported no change, and 6 percent reported weight gain."

However, most members are not particularly joining for health reasons, but for transportation reasons. The report says that 71% said "get around more easily, faster, shorter time" as a "very important" main reason for joining, versus only 27% saying the same for "exercise, fitness."

How can health benefits go to those who need them most?

Many communities with the greatest health challenges are not taking strong advantage of Capital Bikeshare. Almost 97% of respondents in the survey have a bachelor's degree or higher. Members are predominantly younger, less likely to be poor, and slightly more male than the general population.

Most significantly, only about 3% of respondents were African-American, versus about half of DC and a quarter of the region. Wards 7 and 8, which face obstacles of greater poverty, larger hills, and poor bicycle connections to the rest of the city, have only 0.8% and 0.4% of Capital Bikeshare members, respectively.

This is far from a new issue. Darren Buck wrote a graduate paper about how other North American bike sharing systems are reaching out to underrepresented groups. Today's GWU report suggests Capital Bikeshare pursue sponsorships from health insurance companies and state and local health agencies to fund outreach programs, do further studies on why some communities don't join Capital Bikeshare, and other research.

It would also be interesting to find out more about how the lower usage by lower-income and minority residents corresponds to factors, like geography, which nobody can control. In areas that already enjoy mixed-use growth, like Columbia Heights, are residents from underrepresented groups more likely to join Capital Bikeshare than elsewhere in the city? If so, that could point to ways to make the most impact on health in a shorter period of time and with fewer resources.


Stuffy dress codes hamper healthy urban choices

The dress code at many federal workplaces simply doesn't make sense anymore as the standard in professional attire. How is anyone supposed to ride a bike to work in a tailored skirt or a starched dress shirt?

Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious on Flickr.

Secretaries Sebelius, LaHood, Donovan and Admini­strator Jackson: No doubt, you have plenty keeping you busy over at HHS, DOT, HUD and EPA. However, you have an opportunity to lead in promoting more health, better transportation, better cities and a sustainable planet by changing the federal employee dress code.

For a long time, convention required suits, ties and pantyhose. Before that it was a lot of gloves and hats and powdered wigs. (Don't get me started on the corsets...) But the fashion police have moved forward, leaving federal agencies hopelessly out of style and out of step with their own missions.

Environmental sustainability, smart urban growth and public wellness are at the very top of the agenda. But most of your employees can't live out the very values that they work for; they're too busy fetching their dry cleaning and keeping their shoes shined.

Let's relax the professional dress code in favor of something a little more practical.

Secretary LaHood, it would be nice to get more people out of the morning gridlock and onto a Metro, right? Employees who choose to walk or bike to work might put a dent in the diabetes and obesity numbers, isn't that true, Secretary Sebelius?

If more people chose to wait for the bus instead of hopping into a private vehicle, I bet the environment would have no objections, right Ms. Jackson? For that matter, I bet your cooling costs (and your carbon footprint) wouldn't be so high if people didn't wear wool all summer. I get warm just thinking about August in DC.

Undoubtedly, some of your employees make great choices already, out of necessity or otherwise. But you aren't making it any easier for them. And it wouldn't cost you a dime to make the change. In fact, it might save everyone a few dollars.

Of course, all of your workers would see some returns if they didn't have to suit up for work every day. In addition, a more active, health-conscious employee workforce would help to reduce your organization's insurance overhead. In turn, employees would enjoy lower premiums and, eventually, fewer reasons to see the doctor in the first place.

And, Secretary Donovan, you know better than anyone, as more and more people find themselves living in urban areas, individuals' choices regarding their health and their habitsfrom how they choose to commute to how many loads of laundry they wash in a given weekhave a larger and larger impact the way our cities develop and evolve.

The very concept of what it means to look like a "professional" needs a makeover. Lest you think that this would mean lowering standards, let me assure you on behalf of the fashion police: it would not. We love good style, and we love great clothes. But even we don't think that respect for a person's professionalism should hinge on whether he or she showed up in khakis or couture.

More often than not, when it comes to game-changing strategies, the private sector leads and the public sector follows. It's no surprise. Bold moves often require more risk than a government agency like any of yours can reasonably and responsibly agree to take on.

Here, then, is a rare opportunity. This is your chance to be taste-makers. Relax your dress codes and start a movement. Many fixes are expensive and challenging to implement. This one costs nothing at all and promises some big potential returns, from healthier, happier employees to cleaner, greener cities.

Public Spaces

Planners are the new public health officials

Research has linked the growing obesity epidemic to inactivity caused by poor land-use and transportation choices. Transportation and planning professionals are now joining the ranks of public health professionals to find solutions. Across the region, local officials are taking this to heart.

Photo by Jeff Anderson, Wolftrap Elementary, VA.

Obesity is a serious problem in the US. When planners shape land-use or transportation options, they're determining the potential health of the community, because these options affect whether people can choose effective transit or safe walking and bicycle routes.

When the Prince George's community hosted a screening of the four-part HBO Weight of the Nation documentary series earlier this week, the community highlighted this intersection between public health and transportation planning.

Global Solutions President and CEO Dr. Maya Rockeymore, speaking at a panel after the screening, responded to the stark numbers presented in the film. In Baltimore, residents of the Inner Harbor have a life expectancy of 62 years while residents of North Baltimore have a life expectancy of 82 years. "Context controls choice," she said. People need access to parks, transit, safe walking and bicycle routes, and full-service grocery stores to even have the choice to be healthy.

Low-income communities and communities of color have higher rates of obesity and chronic disease. The physical neighborhood of the Inner Harbor contributes to the health disparity in life expectancy. While designed as a walkable community, the neighborhood suffers from vacant houses, streets in need of maintenance and lack of destinations to meet basic needs such as a grocery store. When the physical environment deteriorates, safety becomes an additional issue in neighborhoods.

In the United States, 66% of adults are overweight or obese and nearly 20% of children are obese. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and asthma in both adults and children.

Pamela Creekmur, the Acting Health Officer and Director of the Prince George's County Health Department, explained that Prince George's obesity and physical inactivity rates are higher than other jurisdictions in the greater Washington region. Though Prince George's faces a bigger challenge, all the region's communities have seen a rise in obesity rates, which range between 18 to 34 percent for adults throughout the region.

Part of the cause of this obesity epidemic is physical inactivity. There has been a 300 percent increase in driving to work since 1960. As the documentary explains, in 1969 almost 50 percent of kids walked or biked to school while today only 13 percent of kids do the same.

The lack of exercise by children extends beyond just commuting to and from school. The documentary shows a mom who takes her children to a parking lot because it is the only open space they have to play. This environment isn't hospitable to the kind of physical activity a good park encourages.

Whether it's questions of commuting or questions of parks, transportation and planning professionals make decisions that affect travel and open spaces every day. These decisions need to be viewed as public health decisions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency charged with health promotion and disease prevention, agrees. It has recognized that transportation policy, street-scale improvements, and access to places suitable for physical activity matter to our health. Among the CDC's recommendations is to participate in Safe Routes to School initiatives and adopt Complete Streets policies.

The Guide to Community Prevention Services, written by an independent group of public health and prevention professionals appointed by the CDC director, outlines several more environmental and policy approaches to provide opportunities for people to be physically active. These include the connectivity of sidewalks and streets, providing places for physical activity such as trails, and street-scale improvement such as street lighting and traffic calming. Such urban design features have been shown to improve some aspect of physical activity by 35 percent, not to mention the accompanying benefits of reduced crime and stress.

Of course, these improvements do not come overnight. After the screening, an elected official and audience members noted that such changes are not easy. After all, parks do not generate tax dollars.

But that does not mean that our environments must stagnate while our health deteriorates. Local communities can bring about change even when the federal government or state government seems stuck. Port Towns Youth Council President Erick Vargas talked about how his group took matters into their own hands by doing an audit of the streets and reporting the problems.

Prince George's County is taking action through a partnership of towns within the county. The Port Towns Community Health Partnership has a policy development team focused specifically on the built environment and nutrition policy to improve options for active living and healthy eating.

The group, which includes the towns of Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, Cottage City, and Edmonston, included a community health and wellness section in the Port Towns sector plan with the goals of providing safe places to walk and exercise and access to nutritious foods. The group is following through on sector plan recommendations to formalize a wellness opportunity zone as part of the zoning code. This would include changes in the built environment, access to healthier foods, and improved environmental stewardship.

Across the Potomac, the Fairfax County Health Department established the Partnership for a Healthier Fairfax, a group of community members and organizations concerned with public health. The Partnership created an environment and infrastructure strategic issues team as one of five teams who will make recommendations for improving health in Fairfax County. The first focus is a on local policy. The team is doing a scan of policies, including transportation and land use, that could be modified to promote a healthier and safer physical environment.

In the Washington region, better transportation and planning decisions can improve our health by increasing our access to efficient transit and space to run, bike, and play. We also create a healthier context for our environmentand as Dr. Rockeymore said, context controls choice. Throughout the region, local groups are working to give more of their neighbors the choice to live healthier lives.

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