Approximately three-quarters of Americans do not get enough exercise. Being overweight caused by poor diet and not enough activity has become epidemic in the United States, increasing dramatically every year for the past 30 years. This situation has huge health and quality of life costs, as seen in the stunning increase in asthma and other respiratory problems, diabetes, heart disease and long-term debilitating illnesses.

According to the American Lung Association, asthma is the leading serious chronic illness among children. In addition, currently 11% of American children suffer from childhood obesity, with an even higher percentage considered overweight but not obese. The rise in obesity and sedentary lifestyles has led scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to predict that for children born in 2000, one third will develop diabetes during their lifetimes.

Add to this the increasing costs to our health and environment from pollution from our long-term love affair with the car, and we are slowly choking ourselves to death. The Triangle and the Triad of North Carolina rate number 2 and 3 nationally as the worst areas for sprawl, according to a 2002 report by Smart Growth America. The direct effect this has on our health is the deterioration of our air quality. In the American Lung Association 2003 study of the “Most Ozone Polluted Metropolitan Areas” Los Angeles ranks number one, but shockingly Charlotte is number 10 (ahead of Washington-Baltimore.) Greensboro comes in at 17, and Raleigh-Durham stands at 22. Except for Raleigh-Durham, our other North Carolina cities rank far worse than in 2000.

Making individual choices such as eating better, exercising more, polluting less, driving less, and so on are helpful, but sometimes we are limited in choices by where we live and available options. For example you often cannot walk through a large parking lot or cross a busy road because they are not built for pedestrians. For real change to happen we need better planning and design on the community-wide scale.

Live in a Neighborhood that makes it easy to walk and ride a bike instead of always having to get in your car. Often times this means living closer to town, and in neighborhoods that have sidewalks and infrastructures that encourage and support walking. Help local zoning and planning boards realize that mixed-use community developments offer citizens a better quality of life. If developers build homes, shops, schools and churches within the same development, then people can chose to walk to the local shops and children can walk to school and their friend’s home. How many over 40-year olds used to walk to school compared to children today? The statistics show at least 50% of baby boomers walked to school, compared to less than 10% of children who can or do walk to school today. When people think about it, they realize their favorite town or community to visit turns out to be one that is built “human-scale” and is walkable, rather than solely dependent on cars.

Live in a Neighborhood that builds houses with energy efficiency and health of the buildings as high priorities. For less than 10% extra cost, we can build houses that are 30-50% more energy efficient than current code requirements and have minimal negative indoor air quality issues. If we are worried about our outside air quality, we need to be just as worried about our indoor air quality. With the outgasing from glues, paints, cleaners, synthetic materials and so on, our indoor spaces can be even more of a hazard to our health than our outdoor space. Now, with additional attention paid to problems from mildew and mold, people are realizing that sometimes the buildings in which we spend so much of our time are making us sick. Given that the average person in the United States spends 85-90% of his time indoors, it matters that we make sure our indoor spaces are built with materials that don’t offgas hazardous fumes. Also, some people are much more chemically sensitive than others. Finally, mold and mildew are related to good ventilation and good building practices that keep out moisture, things we haven’t paid enough attention to in the past.

Use “Green” materials when building or renovating a house and for your household cleaners and activities. Many more new products are available now than just ten years ago. Although they might not be available at traditional stores and you may need to special order them or get them through the mail, “Green” products now make it possible to buy everything from paints that have little to no odor, to non-toxic cleaning products and soaps. With our consumer dollars, we support what we believe in.

Encourage Change in Your Local Community. Positive change happens when we care enough to change ourselves and then change our communities. Start small, taking it a step at a time. Start with yourself, your household, your workplace, your neighborhood and then your extended community. We do have options and they include improvements for us on a personal level as well as for our community..