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Fat? Blame the Neighborhood

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Try telling this to a real estate agent: I want a healthy neighborhood.

That request may sound reasonable once you know that people who choose to live in sprawling subdivisions are more likely to be overweight --- even obese --- according to data released Thursday.

Alpharetta resident Jim Hall, 47, said he'd like to walk more with his wife and 5-year-old son, Lipi, but feels unsafe traipsing along country roads near his subdivision, Providence Oaks.

"The farthest I walk is from my house to the pool in my development," Hall, a Web developer, said as he sipped coffee at a Starbucks across from North Point Mall. "That's an eighth of a mile, which really isn't much when you come down to it. I guess we feel a little cheated with no sidewalks."

Preliminary results from SMARTRAQ, a Georgia Tech travel behavior and land-use study of 8,000 Atlanta area households, show people are less likely to be overweight in population-dense neighborhoods that are connected by sidewalks and offer a mix of residences, offices and entertainment.

"What the study shows is that overall people who can walk for transportation purposes --- to get to a restaurant, the dry cleaners --- walk more frequently. They also tend to weigh less," said Lawrence Frank, co-author of the study and a former professor at Georgia Tech. He took a job at the University of British Columbia earlier this month.

Tech researchers collected data over two years from 17,000 residents living in 13 metro counties. Participants kept diaries, and some transmitted data through global positioning devices.

Preliminary results were announced in Washington to coincide with the Thursday release of a book Frank co-authored. Frank will release the complete SMARTRAQ study later this year.

So far, findings show that as density increases to more than eight residences per acre, the percentage of white men who are overweight drops to 50 percent. In areas with two or fewer residences per acre, 68 percent of white men are overweight. Similar trends are found in black men, but sample size and significance were lower, Frank said.

About 22 percent of white women are overweight in dense neighborhoods, compared with 32 percent in areas where homes are spread out. The results aren't as conclusive with black women possibly because of sample size in a region that is about 70 percent white, Frank said.

The $4.6 million study was funded by the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Turner Foundation.

In the suburbs, communities are designed around a car, noted Jeff Rader, vice president of operations and policy for the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. He said some developers have difficulty getting approval for higher-density communities from neighbors and local governments. Perhaps studies like this one will make them more acceptable, he said.

"They will be able to make credible claims that this is a healthy community," he said.

Some suburbanites say they make an effort to walk, even without sidewalks.

"My wife and I walk the kids all the time," said David Coston, 39, who strolls his twin infant sons most evenings after dinner. Because his Lilburn subdivision doesn't have sidewalks, they walk on the street close to the curb.

Howard Frumkin, a physician and professor who studies the health consequences of sprawl at Emory's Rollins School of Public Health, said he hopes this study and others can spur evidence-based guidelines for the design of healthy communities.

"That's what preventive medicine is all about," he said.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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