While I was building my house in the lovely country setting where I live now, I dreamed of the life I’d live here. Ten miles from town, surrounded by woods, we would build a wellness oasis where living a healthy, active lifestyle would be effortless! I definitely bought into the stereotype of rural life as healthy and wholesome, replete with outdoor pursuits.
The reality, of course, is far more nuanced. This area supports a healthy lifestyle in many ways – for example in my area there are three fabulous farmers markets and a wonderful healthy food co-op nearby. But being active can be surprisingly challenging. As it turns out, the devil is in the details.
If I liked to chop wood for exercise, like my partner Dan, there wouldn’t be a problem. But running has been my go-to exercise for as long as I can remember. I’m not a marathon runner by a long shot. But I’ve long found that a quick thirty or forty minute huff and puff around the neighborhood is a good, relaxing way to get the heart rate going. I like walking, too. Easy, quick and free – just walk out of your door and go.
Or not. When I walk out my door, it’s a nice jog down the half-mile long dirt road I live on. Soon enough though, I reach a rather inhospitable rural road. No sidewalk, no shoulder, just a narrow strip of land between the road and the drainage ditch. This particular road is also curvy, hilly and at time frequented by logging trucks. They take up so much room that if you see (or hear) one coming it is best to just dash into the woods until it goes by. Then, as I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, there are the dogs.
We have dogs ourselves. We like that they bark at deer, and coyotes, and well – people. But it seems that even when people live on main roads, they feel that it is ok to let them run loose. After all, who is going to walk by? Just me, and just once.
The joke’s on me. I spent a year doing a policy analysis at my state health department to identify ways for cities and towns to help people be more active. We looked under rocks for regulations and ordinances that might have any tiny effect on physical activity either positive or negative– sidewalks, roads, land use, community design, school siting, parks, etc. Not once did leash laws come up. I think we missed one, guys.
So we’ve established that the road I happen to live on is not such a good idea. How about a nice walk in the woods? It was just starting to get warm out when we moved in. Which was nice, except for the fact that the Copperheads think that warm weather is nice too. As do the ticks, those menacing little bearers of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
When the weather is cooler, it is a great time to walk in the woods here – not as many critters. You might want to add a little orange to your wardrobe, though. The hunters think it’s a great time to be out there, too.
So for the first time in my life, I pretty much have to get in my car to go walk or run. I drive ten or so minutes to the nearest trail, or I drive to the gym, or I drive to my local tennis courts. I’m fortunate that I’ve got the $40 a month for the gym membership and the gas for my car and, the extra time it takes to get where I need to go to exercise. And, especially, that I’ve got the motivation to go exercise even when its neither easy nor free nor quick.
It is unsurprising to me that in the U.S, people living in rural communities are more likely to be inactive than those living in urban or suburban communities. A quick cab ride through my hometown of New York City last week is like fantasy land for anyone working in the physical activity realm: people walking, walking, everywhere, as far as the eye could see. And my most recent home in the suburbs was a fitness oasis too: a park within walking distance, safe streets, sidewalks, street lights, and lots and lots of parks, fields, facilities and sports leagues. These are the gifts that are bestowed on a densely populated, fast growing, and affluent suburb – in exchange for their tax dollars, of course.
A mere ten miles down the road from where I’m getting chased by dogs, in the metropolis of Chapel Hill, Active Living by Design is doing outstanding work with communities all over the country to build a culture of active living and healthy eating. And here is a case study that their sister agency, Active Living Research, has created that looks at overcoming barriers to active living in rural areas.
It suggests that it’s likely not feasible to add sidewalks and bike lanes to most rural roads, so we’d better get creative. We need destinations to be active and we’d better find ways to help people access the parks and trails and other resources that we do have available.
My county has a hardworking and dedicated health department doing its best to do that, along with a YMCA, great parks departments, and sports leagues. There are a lot of people who are working hard to provide more opportunities for people to be active. To build and motivate and to educate and subsidize. But the bottom line is that less developed areas usually take in fewer tax dollars and those are the places that often need the resources and infrastructure for being active the most.
There are no easy answers, but asking good questions is an essential start. Every area is different, and discovering a community’s unique needs and assets is essential. Only then can we get creative to our approach to shaping our community to support active living.
I am a steering committee member for the Community Health Assessment our local health department is conducting this year. We are preparing a citizen survey that we’ll use to help determine how to deploy the county’s limited public health resources. One thing we’ll ask people is how often they are active and what gets in the way of their being active.
There is no box for “dogs,” “logging trucks,” or “hunters,” but I’m betting we’ll get some write-ins.