If You Build It...

author-dr-ali-zentner.jpgDr. Ali Zentner is a specialist in cardiac risk management and obesity and was an expert on CBC's Village on a Diet.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a community a healthy one. Make no mistake, for me health is a language I try to speak freely, be it in my daily life or in my daily work. But I wonder if the conversation can't be more of a global one - if we can't extend the concept of health to the communities we live in.

What makes a neighbourhood or even a society a healthy one?

Let's be clear - healthy communities need a healthy structure at their core. They should by their very nature promote wellness and therefore stave off illness.

You can't have a healthy community without a code of conduct that stresses certain innate wellness principles. First things first - there has to be a philosophy behind a community's desire to be healthier. If the members of a community or the governing body of that community dont get behind the problem or the solution then we end the discussion here.

Next, you kind of have to have the infrastructure to have a healthy society. When you build a park, children will play. When you build sidewalks connecting people they will walk to connect. When you make it easier to be active in a person's daily life they are more likely to do so.

I live in downtown Vancouver. When I first moved here seven years ago I read an article about how the city planners of Vancouver insisted that their city be designed to be a place people could live and work in. They wanted a downtown core where people could walk to work and play. Where they could live within proximity of all their daily needs so that they never needed a car for their daily activities. I remember thinking that THIS was a city for me.

Dr. Robert Ross, a professor of Kinesiology from Queen's University talks about the concept of "Optimal Default". Optimal Default implies that exercise or activity is the optimal choice. Take any office building, for example. Where are the stairs? Is it easier to get to the second floor by elevator or stairs? I would argue that in any building over 3 stories, the stairs are used "in case of fire". Unless the building is burning down, we use the elevator.

You can see how we already have a big problem. We have now essentially made a stipulation that unless we build cities differently we are doomed to fail in the wellness world.

Unfortunately I don't think we'll ever restructure our current cities. Culturally we've become a nation of convenience. We've found a convenient way to eat and a convenient way to get from one place to another. I'm not naïve to think that we'll tear up the freeways tomorrow and everyone will ride their bike to work. I know that fast food and fast cars are here to stay.

I'm not suggesting we abandon the use of elevators and walk ways but there must be a return in some form to activity as the default. When did we systematically engineer activity out of our lives and how do we try and bring it back?

As I write this I must admit.... I'm feeling a little sad. I'm not sure I have the solution for what make a city or a community a healthy one. I am baffled by how big the problem really is.

One thing I do know is the power of the human spirit. People really do want to be well. They want a better future for themselves and their families. They want to hope for more. So maybe it's as simple as starting a conversation.

We've seen all too well this past year how the power of the individual really can spark a change. I guess in the absence of a global restructuring we're going to have to start the healthy revolution one person at a time.

Let's start talking.

Could we leave our car at home and walk or bike to work one or two days a week? Could we eat out less? Could we always take the stairs? Could we park our cars in the farthest spot in the lot? Could we take time every day to do one thing for our own health?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but maybe by asking questions we'll find some solutions. One thing I am clear on is that we really need to start talking; to each other and our leaders about what our healthy priorities should be. Maybe we'll start a "wellness revolution" or maybe nothing will change.

Here's my challenge Canada: open your minds and your mouths and see what you come up with. I'm here to listen and watch the story unfold and hopefully participate in the magic that comes after. Go for it my little nation, I dare you. 

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