Urban Living is Good for Your Health

 

I’ve got a totally earth-shattering revelation for you: moving more is good for your health. Related news: not moving at all might be really bad for it.

Okay, now that you’ve gotten over the shock, I suppose I’d better warn you that this post is not going to contain any meaningful research or science. So, yeah, you can stop reading now if you want.

Fixin’ to commute

Instead, I’m going to share a bit of a personal story. Let’s begin about a decade ago when I was a young associate at a big east coast (sorry, “international”) law firm. I had finally managed to convince myself to spend what it took to purchase a condo in housing-booming DC and purchased my first car that wasn’t a hand-me-down from my parents or brother.

My new place was about a mile and a half from the office, near Logan Circle. Up until then, I’d walked to work from an apartment about five blocks away. I figured I would keep walking and primarily use the car to go for groceries on the weekends and for general amusement.

I was wrong. The first spring morning that I woke up to a world covered in a blanket of yellow tree pollen, I told myself I’d just drive for a few weeks so I didn’t have to spend the first few hours of the day as a sneezy, allergy-ridden mess.

Then it was June and summer in DC. The humidity. I told myself I’d drive until things cooled off because I didn’t want to arrive at the office a giant sweaty mess.

Needless to say, I wasn’t getting the built-in exercise that I’d hoped for. Moreover, I’d compound the issue with food choices. Being a busy little billing machine, I’d leave the office late (after 7 or much later), when traffic wasn’t really an obstacle, but I still wasn’t feeling the energy to cook. I’d order pizza or Chinese, or, even worse drive past home to go to Wendy’s so I could get something to eat without having to get out of the car.

Yes, you read that right. I’d make a terrible, unhealthy and (in my opinion) not all that tasty food choice just to avoid getting out of the car. Talk about lazy.

One of those evenings reviewing large quantities of documents in a windowless room, some of my work friends encouraged me to start eating healthier and cooking my own food. They offered simple suggestions and recommended a decent cookbook or two. That was really nice of them, but I can be pretty stubborn so it took me awhile to see that they were right.

I was up to about 260 pounds and feeling terrible. I found I couldn’t keep up with a friend who commuted on foot over a 6 block walk to catch a movie. Walking four blocks to the store felt like a daunting distance, so I’d drive, getting frustrated if there was no parking. And I wasn’t exactly happy. I was worried about my health and decided I needed to change.

I stopped driving. I started walking and I started cooking. With those two changes – walking a mile and a half every morning to work (and more often than not back home again) and cooking nearly all of my own dinners – I dropped a lot of that extra weight. I felt better and I felt better about myself.

Commutin’

Oh, yeah, well, the relatively long weekend bike rides helped too. (I really liked my 25 mile loop up the Capital Crescent to Bethesda and back down through Rock Creek Park to home). The money I saved on not paying for parking more than paid for a bike (not that money tends to be short for big law firm associates with no kids) .

Much to my luck, there was a grocery store between my home and the office, which meant that I could make an easy stop on my way home several times a week, which made eating fresh fruit, vegetables and meats easier. Stopping might have added ten minutes to my commute, but I’d still arrive home having gotten a half hour of exercise, with something nutritious to eat and having been through zero road rage.

But more than that I got to the point where a longer walk was no longer daunting. Wanting to track my progress, I walked around 6 miles round trip to get a bathroom scale from Target in Columbia Heights (the DC version). I felt so much better.

When it was time to move back to Minnesota, I’d learned something: I’m terrible at making myself go to the gym. While I love walking and biking, I hate treadmills and stationary bikes. If I was going to have any hope of maintaining my new-found healthy habits, I needed to live somewhere from which I could walk to work. I picked Loring Park over the North Loop and Mill District because I wanted to be close enough to be able to use the skyways. The view didn’t hurt either.

Yer doin’ it wrong

At that time, though, the only walkable grocery option was the downtown Target. The convenience was great, but nearly everything I buy at the grocery store comes from the produce and fresh meat sections, which are not Target’s focus. Driving across the river on Saturday to grab groceries worked reasonably well, but planning out the week’s meals and shopping at the busiest possible times just makes for a different kind of lifestyle, especially when things getting busy at the office can so easily interfere with the plan.

The opening of a Lunds at 12th and Hennepin was a game changer. I’ve said before in the comments here and elsewhere that I think everyone should live within easy walking distance of a grocery store, a liquor store (these first two really should be one store), a pharmacy and at least two places to eat. For me, it is profoundly beneficial to health and happiness.

I don’t belong to a gym. I rarely drive during the week. I do essentially all of my errands on foot. Rush hour is not at all an aggravation.

In short, I live the way people in urban areas used to live (except maybe I don’t use transit as much); the way people in urban areas outside the U.S. still live.

I wrote this post wearing clothes in sizes I’ve not worn since high school. Living in the city didn’t make me more active, healthier and happier, but it provided conditions that made achieving those things a lot easier. Everyone should try it.

This column first appeared on Streets.mn, a nonprofit and volunteer-run forum on transportation and land use issues in Minnesota.