One of President Obama's priorities is overhauling America's health care system, whose costs continue rising at nearly seven times the rate of inflation and currently represent about 17% of our gross domestic product. One reason for these skyrocketing figures is that people require more and more care.
Why? Because we're not as healthy as we used to be. And the prime factor for that is we don't exercise enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only a quarter of Americans exert themselves at recommended levels, while nearly a third don't exercise at all. No wonder obesity is a national epidemic, among young and old alike, and a leading cause of increased incidences of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even some types of cancer.
Not surprisingly, this inactivity leads to $76 billion -- 10% -- of our nation's annual medical costs. But there's hope. A study released last year determined that those who keep themselves fit file a third fewer medical claims than couch potatoes. And it doesn't take much to get in shape: The CDC estimates that a vigorous, daily 20-minute walk could stop the obesity epidemic in its tracks.
The TPL's eye-opening 2006 study "The Health Benefits of Parks" presented the clearest evidence yet on how vital providing public open space is to our national well-being. It cited works by countless researchers that the closer one lives to a park, the likelier we are to exercise -- by as much as 48%. The TPL is putting its money where its mouth is via its Parks for People initiative, which helps communities (especially park-starved cities) create new greenspaces.
Of course, we've also got to change the mindsets of citizens and legislators. Half of the errands we run each day in our cars could be accomplished via a 20-minute bike ride, while a quarter are within a 20-minute walk, meaning it would be a snap for most of us to reach our necessary daily exercise quota. The trick is to convince people to leave their cars at home -- for their own good, as well as the good of the planet. At the same time, we've got to make it safer and more convenient for them to hop on the bike or lace up the sneakers.
Enter federal stimulus funds. By channeling money toward creation of parks, as well as trails and greenways linking residential districts with shops, schools and offices, states and municipalities could make a world of difference. The RTC's 2008 study "Active Transportation for America" noted that a single mile of new four-lane highway costs approximately $50 million. For that same amount, you could construct hundreds of miles of rail and walking trails -- in fact an entire network for a mid-sized city. The report also notes that even a modest switch from car to bike or foot would provide the recommended daily exercise for 50 million Americans and a reduction in medical costs by as much as $28 billion. Cities could take their trail-creation cues from Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, which are among the most bike-friendly places in America.
To date state and federal funding for pedestrian trails has been woefully inadequate. Since 1992, it has amounted to a mere $4.5 billion -- 1,000 times less than the outlay for highway construction.
It's time to flip these figures around. By creating new parks and trails, the government has an unprecedented opportunity to help jump-start the economy while slashing medical costs, improving residents' health and reducing our carbon footprint. That's real bang for the buck when we most need it.
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