Reframe: Episode 62

Why Health & Wellness is More Than What We Eat & How We Move

When we talk about health and wellness, we often talk about what we eat, how we move, and the personal choices we make. But our health and wellbeing, and even the health of entire communities, depends on more than just diet and exercise. It also has a lot to do with where we live and the spaces we occupy.

Music: Tech Toys by Lee Rosevere. Black Lung and Our Ego by Broke For Free.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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

Our well-being, and even the health of entire communities, also depends on more than just nutrition and exercise. It also has a lot to do with where we live and the spaces we occupy.

So making healthy changes, especially when it comes to public health, is also about understanding a variety of contextual factors that can encourage or discourage all kinds of health-related behaviors. Because healthy living doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Things like well-kept parks and open spaces, clean air and water, safe neighborhoods, and even the existence or absence social economic factors such as poverty and income inequality also impact health and wellness more ways than we may think.

So how can we best structure our environment, and build our communities, and adopt the kinds of policies and practices, and even make the kinds of social changes that will improve health in ways beyond just diet and exercise?

How can we being to connect the dots between the many different environmental and economic factors that, at first, may seem to be only loosely related to public health. But are, in fact, much more critical in so many ways?

These are just some of questions that concern Dr. Helaine Alessio, a Miami University professor of kinesiology and a national committee member for an organization called ActivEarth.

Part of Dr. Alessio’s work involves helping people understand why environmental stewardship, economic awareness, and the local infrastructure are all just as important.

At Miami, her research has covered topics such as the benefits of using bike lanes as a means of alternative or active transportation. And her students often take her ecological literacy classes to learn how energy systems interact with ecosystems, while building sustainable trails at a local state park.

So, Dr. Alessio, thank you for being on the podcast. Earlier this year, you were re-appointed for another term to serve on ActivEarth’s national committee, correct? And that, in part, involves working with local and also global leaders to make healthy changes on many different levels. So can you tell us a little bit more about this organization?

Helaine Alessio:

Yes. Active Earth is an initiative in the American College of Sports Medicine, which is the largest exercise science and sports medicine professional organization in the world. It's an initiative to address health from not only a personal exercise perspective, but also from an environmental perspective. So, the goal is to improve public health, the environment -- not forgetting the economy -- through greater levels of physical activity, and active transportation like walking, biking, and using forms of transport for work and leisure other than gas fueled vehicles.

James Loy:

So what are some of the challenges to making these kinds of behaviors, you know, walking more, biking more, to become more a part of people’s daily life? Is it mostly about the infrastructure of certain towns? Or is it more about the attitudes that certain people in places have? Because I have lived all over the country, from coast to coast basically, and in some areas it really is just a natural part of daily life. People don’t even think about it. They just do it. But in other areas, not so much. So what are the challenges of just getting more people to just be more active?

Helaine Alessio:

Right. So, we know that there are barriers that are obvious, and then there are barriers that are less obvious. So, not having sidewalks - it might not at first appear that that's an issue. But then when you put the sidewalks in, people walk on them. And that's when it hits you, oh, the sidewalks facilitate or encourage physical activity. So that's one.

Having bike lanes. Not having bike lanes, you might, again, not notice it. But, in fact, not having bike lanes is a barrier to biking. Once you put bike lanes in, and you're biking on those lanes, and you're feeling safer, and you think, oh, that's a safe place for me to bike. I can bike to this place. And I do that myself. When I’m biking, part of my ride, when I bike to work, is on bike lanes. Not the whole way. Because we don't have bike lanes from my neighborhood all the way to work. But I do have a sense of safety once I hit the bike lanes. It's almost like a goal. Oh, I get to the bike lane, and I feel safer.

So bike lanes are another example. And in oxford, the city is putting in a … 12 miles of trail. That's going to connect different what we call POIs - points of interest. And that can be parks and schools. And the whole point of this bike trail 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.


James Loy:

It’s true. If you build it, people will come, and walk and bike and hike.

In fact, a report from Active Living, shows that when sidewalks are present, 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 American College of Sports Medicine’s new minimum recommendations to avoid the severe hazards of a sedentary lifestyle, which, we are now learning, can be so detrimental to our health that experts are calling the new smoking.

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, more social interaction, more inclusiveness, creativity, more accessibility, and decreases in stress and even crime.

Research studying the first bike lanes to be put in New Orleans showed 57% overall increase in the average number of riders per day.

And even more can be said about the presence of green spaces, well-kept parks, and safe hiking trails. And that’s not even yet mentioning all the additional benefits that can boost the environment and the economy as well.

Dr. Alessio, earlier you mentioned ActivEarth’s mission, which works to improve public health, the environment and the economy through more physical activity, more active transportation. I think it’s pretty clear to see how all this relates to health. But could you explain more about how the mission intersects with the environment and the economy? I think that connection might not be as immediately obvious.

Helaine Alessio:

Right. Well, the environment - it comes down to reducing our carbon footprint. We find that, on average, the typical car ride is actually less than three miles. Anytime someone gets into their car you think, oh, we're going for a long car ride. No. The average ride in a car, to run errands, to go to lunch, to meet friends it is less than three miles. So, within those three miles, there's gas burn. There's fuel emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. That can contribute to warming the environment. Polluting the environment.

So, if we can eliminate even half of the typical three-mile car rides, right there we're cutting emissions in half. We're reducing our carbon footprint in half.

The other thing is, when we're not sitting in a car, then we're moving. Then we're getting up to move and walk to meet a friend, or ride our bike to meet a friend. If we're in a wheelchair, pushing ourselves in a wheelchair, we're doing something other than sitting. So that's the environmental effect. It intersects with human health. It benefits both. The environment, and then we have a healthier environment. There's less congestion. There's less cars on the road.

From an economical perspective, save money. Because you're not in a car using gas. The less tangible economic indicator could also include: when there's less pollution, there's fewer cases of environmentally induced illnesses. Not to mention, the physical inactivity of just sitting. Once you add another 10 minutes here of sitting, rather than walking. And another 10 minutes of sitting, rather than walking. And another … Now, all of a sudden, you've added half an hour to an hour of a typical day, when the average American sits six to eight hours a day at work. Six to eight hours a day at work, we're sitting!

So anything that can reduce sitting and add some physical activity - and we know that if we add 10 minutes or 20 minutes here, 10 minutes or 20 minutes there - anything we can do to get up to an hour of physical activity a day will meet, and in some cases exceed, if we do it every day, the guidelines from, not only the American Heart Association, but the American college of sports medicine.

James Loy:

Yeah, and that gets back to the risks of sedentary behavior, which as we mentioned, is being called the new smoking, which is a pretty eye-opening way to look at it.

So does that organization, the ACSM, especially the ActivEarth component of it, of which you are a part, does that operate on more of a national level? Or can it help communities, kind of like here in Oxford, Ohio, where Miami University is based, can it help these kinds of communities enact those processes and polices on a more local level as well?

Helaine Alessio:

So, we're looking at it from a big picture. But we also … we think global, but act local. 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? So it's a circular type of relationship, where one affects the other, which affects the other, which affects the other.

And from our committee, what we're trying to do is track, find evidence-based examples of how active transport can positively impact health. Because we don't want it to say, oh, yeah, we think it happens. No! We want to use evidence-based practices to specifically recommend what can be done at a local level, and then moving up to state, and then regional, and then the national level, to positively impact public health by changing transportation, which benefits the environment and human health.


James Loy:

The evidence certainly exists, and we are learning more all the time.

Current stats from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, for example, say households in automobile-dependent communities spend over 20% more of their annual income on transportation, when compared to people who live in areas with an active transport-friendly infrastructure.

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

These factors add up, and they can become especially profound after realizing that most driving, remember, consists of these short trips, those that are typically less than three miles long.

So driving less, even a little less, can help people start saving more pretty quickly, which may be a great way to provide the extra motivation needed for some of us to drive less, which also, of course, circles directly back to health and wellness.

And not only because of the physical activity involved.

According to the CDC, less driving, under numerous circumstances, is also directly related to less exposure to toxic air pollution, which can reduce asthma, birth defects, childhood cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Less driving can also reduce the long-term healthcare costs associated with chronic diseases such as obesity.

And it leads to safer streets. So traffic-related fatalities and injuries will go down as well.

And these stats only seem to scratch the surface.

So as we continue to learn more about the cyclical nature of all these factors, researchers like Dr. Alessio are continuing to ask questions that will help communities everywhere understand how our collective health and wellness depends on a lot more than just nutrition and exercise.

Because how do we get people to be more physically active, on a regular basis, and in ways that not only benefit personal health, but that also has a positive effect on the environment and the economy?

How do we get more community leaders and local residents to understand that things like parks and trails and bike lanes and sidewalks have benefits that extend far beyond benefitting only the people who use them?

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


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Reframe podcast. If you like this episode, we have many more available, many of which are also about health and wellness. They are available for free on Apple Podcasts and on Google Play Music.