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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 11:16 GMT
How towns are redesigned as gyms
Taking the stairs

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Stairs for cardio training. Wider footpaths instead of treadmills. To fight obesity, the towns we live in are being redesigned so we exercise without noticing.

Our forebears didn't need advice to exercise for 20 minutes a day, five times a week. Physical activity was part of everyday life - walking to work, wringing mangles and promenading in the park on Sundays.

1950s housewife sets off to the shops in the Gorbals
To the shops on foot
Since the 1950s, life is increasingly sedentary. Car ownership has soared. Gadgets ranging from washing machines to remote controls take the effort out of household tasks. Free time often equates to screen time. And new homes built on the fringes require a journey just to buy a pint of milk.

It's not just that we eat more and do less. We live in what experts call an "obesogenic" environment - our surroundings encourage inactivity.

The powers-that-be eye the nation's thickening girth with anxiety. The more people who are overweight, the higher the future cost to the NHS of treating associated ills such as diabetes and heart disease.

Health experts and urban planners are now working out ways to make us more active - not with (often ignored) exhortations to exercise, but while going about our daily lives. How?

TAKE THE STAIRS

Architects of old understood the appeal of a sweeping staircase.

Stairwell at the Sage Music Centre, Gateshead
A pleasure, not a chore
But in modern buildings, the lifts and escalators get the glamour treatment. Stairwells are treated as little more than fire exits, gathering dustballs and fag ends.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence last month issued guidelines on how transport and planning policies can combat obesity, such as designing well-lit and prominently-placed staircases to make taking the steps a more appealing option.

Climbing stairs works the quadriceps and buttocks, improves muscle endurance and can help cardiovascular fitness (although not one flight, going down, at a stroll).

GET WALKING

Four decades ago, the dual carriageway cut a swathe through many a town centre, driving pedestrians into dark underpasses and shops to out-of-town retail parks.

Walkers and cyclists on Newcastle's Quayside
Docksides are now for leisure
These scars of the 60s are now being healed. Nottingham, for example, is still bisected by Maid Marian Way but pedestrians have been brought back up to street level and traffic calming measures introduced.

Wider footpaths and attractively landscaped pedestrianised areas also lure walkers. Including stairs and ramps in the design works different muscles, and helps the motor-neuron development of very young children, says Jennie Butterworth, of the charity Learning Through Landscapes.

In Newcastle's Blackett Street, London's Kensington High Street and others, local councils have ripped out traffic signals, bollards and railings. This is believed to make roads safer as pedestrians, cyclists and drivers have to pay more attention to what others are doing - and there are more people on foot or bike since the declutter.

Walking burns calories and helps boost bone density as it is a weight-bearing exercise. It can improve cardiovascular fitness if done at a fast pace.

TWO WHEELS GOOD

Fitter, happier, more productive - the government is keen for us to get more active ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Cyclist in Kensington High St
Sharing street space
Bike-riding is seen as key to this aim. Last week, London mayor Ken Livingstone unveiled a 500m cycling package.

Plans include bike zones for shoppers and pupils, and cycling "corridors" based on Aylesbury's Gemstone network, where six colour-coded routes radiate out from the town centre like bicycle spokes.

"Aylesbury is a good example of a town that promotes activity," says Polly Turton, of the Commission for the Built Environment (Cabe). "It's spent a lot on cycle paths and pedestrian provision."

Even some new towns, planned post-World War II for ease of driving, have been rejigged to encourage residents out of their cars.

Harlow New Town
Harlow, built when the car was king
Those planning new housing projects must take heed, says Ms Turton. "People need to be able to walk to local services - parks, shops, schools and health centres."

And she says that employers in search of new premises should look to central sites - with dedicated parking for bikes only - as these are easier to get to without recourse to a car, and mean employees can get around shops and cafes on foot during breaks.

Cycling strengthens the leg muscles and improves co-ordination. It also helps cardiovascular fitness.

FREE PLAY

Parks have long tempted the British out of doors.

Riverside walk and cathedral gardens in Norwich
Time and money is needed to maintain parks and playgrounds
And when these are well-maintained and well-lit, it helps instil the habit of active living. Recent research by Cabe has found that Norwich residents who live near a park are four times more likely to walk or cycle to work.

Professor Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce, a London-based think tank, says that urgent steps are needed to make people more active. "The environment in which we live is the overwhelming factor amplifying the [obesity] epidemic," he told a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Sunday.

While taking the stairs, or a kickabout in the local playground will not lead to dramatic weight loss, making such activities part of everyday life is a prevention rather than a cure.

Exercising outdoors means fresh air and sunshine - even the weakest winter rays can help boost vitamin D production.

POST-WORKOUT SNACK

But all this good work can be undone by a calorie-laden diet.

Pupil eating fast food
Off the school menu
There are moves for planning permission to look specifically at where fast food outlets will be sited in relation to schools and parks, to guard against precisely this, says nutritionist Amelia Lake, of Newcastle University.

And often, it is deprived areas which have the fewest parks and playground and the most fast food outlets, according to research in England and Scotland.

In the United States, where most research on the links between environment and obesity has been carried out, low-income neighbourhoods typically have worse access to healthy foods and physical activity facilities.

Which is all why attention has shifted to redesigning towns and communities - to make the healthy option for eating and getting about the easiest option.

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