Monday, June 7, 2010

Potential of Prevention: WALL-E, Active Lifestyles, and the Importance of Good Policy

In the movie WALL– E, the human race has become so dependent on energy-saving devices that they’ve devolved over the course of 700 years into large infant-like beings that can only get around on futuristic wheel chairs. The director of the film has denied that this was targeted social commentary, just a way to develop the plot. Still, it’s a thought provoking image as we all spend more and more time not being physically active - which was the topic of a nice piece today on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” (story).

The story discussed the many ways physical activity has been engineered out of our daily lives. From driving nearly everywhere, to eating pre-packaged and prepared foods, to sitting at a desk eight hours a day, most of us live lives that are largely sedentary, especially compared to the average person just a couple generations ago. Sedentary life has become so ingrained into society, the story continues, that one way to combat it is to create an environment that invites people out of their cars and back in to more active living. One example: The housing development at the site of the old Stapleton airport in Denver, where sidewalks, bike lanes, parks, and close-in shops make active lives not only doable but preferable.

Such changes to public policy and improvements in infrastructure with the goal of improving health are nothing new. From smoking bans to building codes requiring sidewalks, it’s long been known that the best way to support healthy choices by individuals is to create a supportive environment. But these types of improvements in policy and infrastructure finally seem to be gaining some momentum and could have a huge impact on health.

Increasing activity levels across the population – even only minimally – would lead to large drops in rates of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Drops in rates of smoking or obesity would have even larger benefits.

To realize this potential, though, we need to keep building momentum for policy improvements at the local, state, and federal levels. Small changes help. Big changes help. What’s most important is that healthy changes get made and build upon each other.

A small selection of important policy changes include:

Tobacco
  • Further increases in local, state, and federal taxes on tobacco products, with steps that ensure the tax money goes to boost public health efforts
  • Better indoor air quality policies that further restrict smoking in workplaces, restaurants, bars, and other public or populated places
  • Better enforcement of laws that prohibit youth from buying tobacco products
Physical Activity
  • New building codes that require sidewalks in new developments and easily accessible stairs in larger buildings
  • Increases in school physical education and innovative teaching techniques that combine activity with key curriculum subjects (like reading and math)
Diet
  • Better support for the offering of healthier meals in school
  • Better support for the offering of healthier meals in workplace cafeterias and vending machines
Weight
  • Development and funding of a nationwide comprehensive weight control initiative that has incentives for schools, businesses, insurers, and local/state governments to take steps to promote weight control

For more on important disease prevention policy approaches, with a focus on cancer, see the:  Harvard Report on Cancer Prevention – Volume 5 Fulfilling the potential for cancer prevention: policy approaches (2002).

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