April 17, 2006

Dead Man Walking


(Editor's note: See two other posts in series, "Carless in Seattle," and "A Mile From Home.")

Transit and walking are time consuming. Most people are just too busy. That’s obvious, right?

Well, as my family begins the ninth week of its experiment in car-less living, I’m finding a few flaws in that logic. Here are two.

1. Time spent on transit is different from time spent driving. People vary, of course, but for me, transit time is a pure gain over driving. I don’t enjoy driving. I’d rather read than listen to music or talk radio. And I can read without queasiness on all forms of transit. For me, then, car time is a waste of life, but transit time is living, and I’ll happily choose a 30 minute transit trip over a 15 minute car trip. For me, driving is time consuming.

2. Just so, walking doesn’t consume time, for different reasons. In fact, walking creates time. For one thing, if you walk for transportation, you don’t have to go to the gym as often.

More profoundly, walking gives you time you wouldn’t otherwise have at all. Walking makes you live longer, as Clark posted here. The largest ever study of the subject found that walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week, adds 1.3-1.5 years to your life, on average. (More vigorous exercise adds even more.) On reasonable assumptions (detailed below the fold), this relationship means that for every minute you spend walking, you get three back.

Time spent walking, then, is utterly free. It’s time you would have spent dead.

Nowadays, when I’m walking, I get a little pleasure in the thought that I’m cheating death, that every minute I spend afoot is an extra moment of life.

Boring, wonky, calculation notes:

My assumptions—which I’d appreciate some astute blog reader checking against the original journal article that reports the study on which Clark posted—are that you have to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week, for thirty years to get the 1.3-1.5 year lifespan bonus. I made up the 30 year figure (too busy to read the journal (wink)).

Then I calculate 30 minutes x 5 (days) x 52 (weeks) = 7,800 minutes of exercise per year x (guess of) 30 years = 234,000 minutes of walking, repaid with 1.4 years or 736,000 minutes of added life. That’s about three minutes extra for every minute you walk.

Note that even if have to walk five days a week from birth to age 90, you’re still getting every single walking minute back, though you wouldn't get three.

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March 02, 2006

Oh, Migratious!

Interesting:  a new study from the US Centers for Disease Control has determined that recent US immigrants are healthier than native-born US citizens:

Overwhelmingly, the study found, ... immigrants have lower rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure; have less disability; and are less likely to acknowledge having mental health problems.

I've often heard it claimed that British Columbia's good health, relative to the Northwest US (longer life spans, lower rates of chronic illness, etc.) can be attributed in part to immigration patterns, rather than healthier lifestyles or better health care in the province.  The claim seems somewhat plausible:  BC has large numbers of well-off and healthy Asian immigrants, who likely buoy health statistics in the province; whereas international immigration in the Northwest US is usually from poorer parts of the globe, such as Central and South America. 

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that international migration may not be a drag on health stats in the Northwest US after all -- just as in BC, in-migration may give health figures a boost.   

Then again, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise.  The Northwest states are healthier than the US average, but that's not saying much any more.  Life expectancy in the US ranks 29th in the world, behind nearly every other major industrial democracy.  It's now nearly a year shorter than in Costa Rica, and just behind such places as Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates.  Given that emigrants tend to be healthier than average for their home countries, and that the US's life expectancy lead has been slipping for decades, it probably shouldn't be at all shocking that in-migrants are now healthier on average than US natives.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 01, 2006

Eat More Veggies

Green_giant_1 Lots more. According to a new biochemical analysis, the nutritional value of US vegetables has declined over the last 50 years. That's because new varieties of fast-growing crops designed to maximize output cannot take up or synthesize nutrients as quickly as more slow-growing plants. The result:

...of 13 major nutrients in fruits and vegetables tracked by the Agriculture Department from 1950 to 1999, six showed noticeable declines -- protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C. The declines ranged from 6 percent for protein, 15 percent for iron, 20 percent for vitamin C, and 38 percent for riboflavin.

Yikes. Just when the slow food movement is taking off, it turns out we need a slow-growing food movement too.

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February 22, 2006

The Time of Their Life

According to the latest figures, life spans in the British Columbia are still on the rise.  In 2005, life expectancy for newborns topped 81 years for the first time ever, up a little over two months from 2004:


To me, the most remarkable thing about this chart is that life expectancy growth has been so steady -- the increases have been almost linear -- and is showing no signs of slowing down. Which suggests that we're nowhere near the end of life span increases.  Indeed, as this article points out (abstract only, unless you're willing to pay), lifespans around the world have grown fairly consistently for about 160 years.  Moreover, mortality experts who have predicted over the years that we're approaching an 'ultimate ceiling' for life expectancy have repeatedly been proven wrong.  Which might suggest that lifespans will continue to rise for quite some time.

Of course, if current trends continue life expectancy in the province will approach 100 years by the time that this year's newborns reach 81--as unthinkable now, perhaps, as a lifespan of 81 years might have been at the dawn of the 20th century.  But even if the growth in life expectancy does slow down some, we're still going to see major increases in the number of elderly people over the next few decades, as the baby boomers hit retirement age.  Those demographic shifts are going to force some major rethinking about how we as a society deal with seniors -- to make sure that their lives aren't just long, but also pleasant and affordable.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Toxic Cocktails

Two interesting -- and a bit disturbing -- pieces of toxics news today.

First, several news outlets are reporting on a new study, coming out of UC Berkeley, showing that mixtures of several environmental contaminants (in this case, pesticides) can be far more potent than higher concentrations of a single compound.  The problem is especially bad for frog populations -- which, as frog-watchers everywhere will tell you, are in particularly bad shape.

Second, there's this new report, put together by two breast cancer groups:

As many as half of all new breast cancers may be foisted upon woman by pollutants in the environment, triggered by such items as bisphenol-A lining tin cans or radiation from early mammograms, according to a review of recent science by two breast cancer groups.

No comments here, except that, perhaps--just perhaps--the former study might help explain the latter.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Slim City

New studies of King County, Washington find that sprawl is linked to dirtier air and bigger bellies. Walkable neighborhoods (those places with higher residential density, more street connections, and nearby to shops, schools, and parks) appear to be healthier for residents and less damaging to air quality--even when taking into account age, income, education and ethnicity.

A few key findings (liberally excerpted from the full coverage in the Seattle Times):

  • On average the Body Mass Index — a measure of height and weight — of residents of the more walkable neighborhoods was lower, and they were more likely to get 30 minutes of daily exercise.
  • People who lived and worked in more walkable neighborhoods produced fewer pollutants associated with smog.
  • A 5 percent increase in a neighborhood's walkability index was associated with a 0.23-point drop in Body Mass Index. Bigger changes in a neighborhood's walkability would be expected to produce greater differences in weight.

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January 11, 2006

Just My Opinion

Two op-eds in today's Seattle Times worth taking a look at...

  • Biodiesel: short-term crush or long-term relationship?  Bruce Ramsey takes a balanced, but ultimately favorable, view of government programs to encourage home-grown fuels.

  • The rapid disappearance of America's middle class.  We posted on a similar subject a few days ago, but it's worth repeating -- rising family incomes don't necessarily mean that we're better off.  In fact, after adjusting for inflation, male full-time workers earn $800 less today than in 1973, which means that the rise in median family income is entirely due to increases in two-earner households.  Of course, these sorts of trends are hard to make sense of across decades, since so many things change -- people's expectations, the quality of consumer goods and public services, enjoyment of time at work vs. time at home, etc.  Still, there's ample reason to believe that the well-being of the middle class has become uncoupled from steady increases in per-capita GDP. The money quote of the article. "All the talk about family values is just that — talk — when our financial policies are driving middle-class families to the wall."

I'm not sure I share all the opinions expressed in the op-eds -- but don't really have anything to add to either piece, either.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

That's Just Not Healthy

Yoiks.  Total spending on health care in the US reached nearly $2 trillion in 2004 -- meaning that roughly one out of every six dollars the nation earns is now siphoned off to pay for medical care.  The growth in health care spending slowed a bit from 2003 to 2004, but medical expenses still grew much faster than the economy overall.  Spending per person across the country averaged $6,280. 

From what I can tell, spending in the Pacific Northwest states is a bit lower than the US average.  In 2000, the most recent year for which state-level data are available, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho's health care expenditures, measured as a share of the states' economic output, were about 10 percent below the national average.  Still, medical care is a huge expense; about $38 billion was spent on medical care in Washington, Oregon and Idaho in 2000 alone.  Given the pace of medical inflation over the last 5 years, that figure has probably topped $50 billion, combined, in the three states.

What all this means is that steps that could shave health care costs, even by just a few fractions of a percent, can reduce overall health care costs by literally hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Shrink Rap

Demographers are projecting that population in some parts of the globe -- Russia, the Ukraine, Japan, much of Western Europe -- are set to decline over the next 50 years or so.  Of course, the talk of a shrinking population seems to send some people into a panic, which is why you occasionally see stories decrying the new "population crisis" -- not too many people, but too few.

The Economist has this to say about the doomsayers:

People love to worry—maybe it's a symptom of ageing populations—but the gloom surrounding population declines misses the main point. The new demographics that are causing populations to age and to shrink are something to celebrate. Humanity was once caught in the trap of high fertility and high mortality. Now it has escaped into the freedom of low fertility and low mortality. Women's control over the number of children they have is an unqualified good—as is the average person's enjoyment, in rich countries, of ten more years of life than they had in 1960. (Emphasis added.)

That seems just right to me.  And the article makes some other worthwhile points too -- including that economic output per capita is a far better measure of the health of an economy than total output.  Measured by total output, a place with a shrinking population could seem to be in economic decline, even if the average person is getting wealthier.  (Of course, even better than total output per capita would be a measure that looks at how the poor and middle class are faring.  Still, policymakers should keep in mind that per capita measures of economic health are more significant than total output.)

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sprawl, Health, Place: Notes from Buckley, WA

Buckley_rainier I recently attended a conference in Seattle for promoting physical activity in urban environments. Alliances between the public health and planning communities are moving out of academia and are being forged on the ground. And it was encouraging to see that what we’re trying to do in my small town in Washington with respect to walkability is what you’re supposed to be doing. 

But walkability by itself is a tough sell. First, many people in suburbs like ours don’t have the time to walk. Suburban dwellers choose to live far from the city, which makes for long commutes that reduce exercise time [another (pdfs)], Second, not everyone cares about walkability or other single-issue items. So, we’re talking about the walkability amenity as one component of a larger small-town, outdoor-recreation, and natural-environment quality-of -life ethic. This softens the impact of rapid change, allows people to see how placemaking (making spaces more attractive and compatible for human uses) benefits them, and it takes away the fear that this is some big-city scheme brought out to the country.

Another example of a tough sell: stopping sprawl. We know that wealthy societies sprawl more [pdf, pg 8] than poor societies--it’s what they do. We enable sprawl by considering land as a commodity that can be bought and sold, rather than as a place that delivers ecosystem services ( e.g. stormwater reduction, air pollution filtration, heat island mitigation, etc)[also 1, 2, 3]. It’s easy enough for property-rights proponents to argue that market forces drive big-lot subdivisions and should drive choices. Well, market forces make traffic congestion too, but never mind that. Ecosystem services--by not being counted in our economics--can’t even enter into the lot-size argument.

But out here in Buckley, people like their large lots--it’s why they live here in the first place; you won’t catch exurbanites dreaming of dense neighborhoods close to transit. But interestingly, folks living on big lots can tell you why small lots have positive qualities: commuters to downtown don’t have three hours a week to mow, weeding a half-acre garden isn’t realistic for a busy household or for seniors, houses are less expensive, etc. Our new senior housing project--to be completed in 2007--will be cottage-style, a good example.

So we’ve tried to emphasize the benefits while gently pointing out no one is asking current residents to move to smaller lots--there are still larger lots in town. When we did zoning changes in Buckley last year, people seemed to respond to the idea that small lots are to diversify our economic base and to provide affordable and senior housing (that is: housing for mom or dad), not to repudiate their life choices.

I’m finding that we stop making unhealthy communities the same way we stop sprawl: not by attacking it directly but by multiple approaches, the most important of which is pointing out sprawl is economically unfeasible to continue. Businesses like walkable neighborhoods because loyal, local customers have something to walk to. Smaller lots--a component of walkable neighborhoods--allow seniors to age in place and create opportunities for young couples to build a family. Cities (especially in Washington where you can’t even tax to keep up with inflation) can deliver services more efficiently when they are compact. Lastly, making your city attractive to a wider range of society allows you to avoid placing all your economic eggs in one basket.

And it may make your city healthier as well (.pdf).

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