Why Public Health is About Far More than Diet and Exercise

James M. Loy, Miami University

When we talk about health and wellness, we often talk about what people eat, how they move, and the personal choices they make. These factors are certainly part of the story. But they are not the whole story.

According to Helaine Alessio, Miami University professor of kinesiology and a national committee member for the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) ActivEarth, health and wellness also depend on many contextual factors found throughout the communities in which we live.

“We know that there are barriers that are obvious,” Alessio says. “And then there are barriers that are less obvious. So not having sidewalks might not at first appear to be an issue. But when you put sidewalks in, people walk on them. That's when it hits you, oh, sidewalks facilitate or encourage physical activity.”

people biking

It’s true. In fact, when sidewalks are present, community residents are 65% more likely to walk. People are also 47% more likely to be active for a least 30 minutes a day, which meets the ACSM’s new minimum recommendations to avoid the severe hazards of a sedentary lifestyle.

Teenagers who walk to school are also more likely to watch less TV and are less likely to smoke. And the overall walkability of a community is linked to increases in mental health and happiness, social interaction, inclusiveness, accessibility, and even decreases in crime.

Even more can be said about the presence of green spaces, well-kept parks, safe hiking trails, clear air and water, various sustainability policies, and more.

So part of Alessio’s work involves helping people understand why environmental stewardship and the local community infrastructure is just as critical to public health and wellness as diet and nutrition.

Think global, act local

At Miami, her research has covered topics such as the economic, environmental, and health benefits of using bike lanes as a means of alternative transportation. And her students regularly engage in ecological literacy service-learning classes to learn how energy systems interact with ecosystems while building sustainable trails at a local state park.

As part of ActivEarth, Alessio also wants to encourage all communities to “think global, but act local.” Earlier this year, she was re-appointed for a second three-year term to serve on ActivEarth’s national committee, where she works with global and local leaders to implement more sustainable policies and practices at various levels.

In Miami University’s home of Oxford, Ohio, across town and around campus, this work is already well underway.

people hiking

Alessio and her students contributed to the city of Oxford’s grassroots efforts led by Jessica Greene, Executive Director of the Oxford Visitors Bureau, to establish bike lanes throughout the town. And a civic partnership between the city and the nearby Hueston Woods State Park also helped Miami earn a bronze Bicycle Friendly University award from the League of American Bicyclists.

More recently, her team worked with the city to secure funding and to pass a local levy to begin construction on a 12-mile trail that will encircle the entire area.

“That's going to connect different points of interest,” Alessio says. “That can be parks and schools, and the whole point is to encourage people to come out and walk their dog, walk with their children, ride their bike, rollerblade, to get out and walk in a safe place, and go somewhere by active transport instead of driving.”

person biking

Economic and environmental boosts also matter

From a public health perspective, the relationship between health and community is becoming increasingly apparent. However, its connections to the environment and the economy are just as significant.

Current stats from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) say households in automobile- dependent communities spend over 20% more of their annual income on transportation compared to those in areas with an active transport-friendly infrastructure.

The VTPI statistics also show that substituting short driving trips in favor of biking or walking can quickly produce relatively large fuel savings. Just a 1% shift from driving to walking, for example, can save up to 4% in fuel costs. Furthermore, short trips in a car have been proven to pollute more per mile due to less engine efficiency.

These factors add up, and they can become especially profound after realizing that most driving consists of these short trips.

“We find that, on average, the typical car ride is actually less than three miles,” Alessio says. “The average ride is to run errands, to go to lunch, to meet friends. So if we can eliminate even half of the typical three-mile car rides, right there we're cutting our carbon footprint in half.”

According to the CDC, these factors are directly associated with less exposure to toxic air pollution, which can curb asthma, birth defects, childhood cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Less driving can also reduce the long-term healthcare costs associated with chronic disease, traffic-related fatalities and injuries, and more.

And these stats only seem to scratch the surface.

So as we continue to learn more about how public health, the economy, and the environment are all deeply interconnected, researchers like Alessio are continuing to ask questions that will help communities everywhere understand how our collective health and wellness depend on more than just nutrition and exercise.

“How do we get people to be more physically active, on a regular basis, that not only includes personal health but also has a positive effect on the environment, which will then impact human health?” she asks.

Because it is evident, now more than ever, that human health does not happen in a vacuum. All around us, every day, there are numerous forces at work.

“It's a relationship,” she says. “Where one affects the other, which affects the other, which affects the other.”