Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Would You Live in an Exercise-Promoting City?

Sedentary lifestyles are a major health issue, with about 25% of Americans being physically inactive according to the CDC. This inactivity increases risks like mortality, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and more. For many, it’s not an intentional choice but rather a result of circumstances like desk jobs, lack of walkable commuting options, and busy schedules leaving little free time for exercise. But what if the city infrastructure itself provided opportunities to be active throughout the day?

“An active city would give you many ways to get around,” says Anna Boldina, an architect researcher at the University of Cambridge studying active cities. “One day you might slide down a pole from your balcony, walk across stepping stones, balance across a log over a river, and climb a ladder to your office balcony instead of taking the elevator. The next day, you could stroll up and down a winding timber path through gardens and then go barefoot over a cobblestone reflexology path…Walking would never be boring, as the routes change daily based on your choice.”

Not only would these cities promote variety and activity, Boldina notes they benefit health by ensuring daily physical activity, which aids the heart, digestion, mood, cognition and more. Specific elements also provide precise benefits like stepping down improving bone density, balancing preventing falls, and stepping stones exercising muscles while promoting mindfulness.

While ideal for new city planning, Boldina suggests existing cities can incorporate elements through small interventions like adding stepping stones across grassy areas or logs over rain gardens. Sometimes it’s removing barriers unnecessarily blocking changes in elevation that could serve as steps.

The goal is making routes accessible yet engaging for anyone capable, including those without exercise routines. “We design for sedentary people to make getting active easy, but wheelchair users could navigate alternative accessible paths,” says Boldina. Their studies found appealing shortcuts, playful elements like crossing water, natural materials resembling hiking, and handrails effectively encourage use of the active routes by those able.

Boldina’s group is working with architects in Cambridge to create such active landscapes, similar to Toronto’s Simcoe WaveDeck, bringing exercise-promoting city design to life worldwide.

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