By Jonathan Krall
Lately, I’ve been reading about exercise and fitness and have come to an odd realization: The most important form of exercise happens — every day — to people who practically are falling over themselves to avoid getting any at all.
The fitness industry tells us that exercise is something people do at a specialized facility using designated pieces of equipment, such as spinning on a stationary bicycle at a gym. But in reality, exercise is any sustained activity that raises the heart rate, such as a 20-minute walk from home to a nearby park or Metro station.
This issue came to mind when Alexandria received an unsolicited bid (later withdrawn) to construct a large, for-profit, exercise complex at Hensley Park. And it came up again when, in a workplace survey, I was asked: “About how many days per week do you engage in moderate or vigorous activity (such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, aerobics or yard work) in addition to your normal daily routine?”
Personally, I ride my bicycle to work as part of my “normal daily routine,” and I know many others who do the same.
But back to the question at hand: What kind of exercise is most effective? Routine, unplanned and unstructured or separate, planned and structured? How should we spend the precious tax dollars put toward promoting public health?
Because so many of us in the United States are suffering from a multitude of low fitness-related preventable diseases, this is no small question. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, the per capita incidence of type 2 diabetes in Virginia more than doubled in the past 20 years, mirroring national trends.
When it comes to fitness, our public health policy clearly is not working. So what should we do?
One clue comes from a 2009 study in the Journal of Public Health Policy. It was reported that regular users of public transit were three times more likely to meet fitness guidelines than others.
Another clue comes from the research of Dr. Mike “23-and-a-half hours” Evans, who posits that 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day, such as walking, is the key to health for most Americans. For many of us, simply driving to and from the gym takes more than 30 minutes.
I often join the throngs of Alexandrians who walk or ride bicycles to the Metro or bus each morning. I choose transit (instead of my bicycle) on days when I will be going out after work instead of going home and don’t want to get sweaty.
Like almost everyone else walking or biking to the station, I am trying to avoid exercise. Happily, all of that movement adds up to a healthy outcome, even when we are trying to minimize effort.
Fortunately, our city planning in recent years has been focused on creating walkable communities, and our local leaders have generally embraced initiatives to support biking and walking, such as our complete streets program and the federal safe routes to school program.
The most important form of exercise happens when people get outside of a building or a car and simply get on with the business — and the fun — of daily living. In the book “City Cycling,” edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, researchers suggest that a crash program of bike-lane striping could be the most cost-effective public health campaign ever invented for a population suffering from low fitness levels.
As our transit-corridor program tempts people to ride instead of drive — and improved sidewalks and bike lanes make access to transit a pleasure instead of a challenge — we can look forward to a population of Alexandrians that are even fitter and healthier (and sexier) than the one we have right now.
– The writer is a member of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.