The lift or the stairs?

Positive health requires a knowledge of man’s primary constitution and of the powers of various foods, both those natural and those resulting  from human skill. But eating alone is not enough for health. There must be exercise of which the effects must likewise be known if there is any deficiency in food or exercise, the body will fall sick. Hippocrates (5th Century BC)

In my role as a town planner, I have to constantly think about how the environment around us affects us and potentially has an impact on our everyday lives. And one of the key things that it impacts upon, and a reason why town planning came about in the first place, is health.

Health is clearly important to me. I’m a regular runner, training for the London Marathon at present. I’m a cook at home as much as possible. I eat pretty well. So this link between town planning and health is important to me. This is a very wide-ranging topic though and I’m therefore going to focus on one aspect of it, starting with the question:

Do you take the lift or the stairs?

I worry about what is happening to our society. The biggest killers in the UK are no longer associated with out of control diseases. They are associated predominantly with eating too much or not moving enough and both of these things are, quite frankly, completely within our own control. We are now a nation of people reliant on over-processed, under-nutritional foods, meaning we’re not giving our bodies the food it needs (even if we are giving it a lot of it). And we don’t exercise enough. Indeed it is often those people who do a limited amount of exercise anyway who will then take the lift to the first floor to avoid walking up a few stairs.

Change has to happen in small steps and taking the stairs instead of the lift could just be one of these (no pun intended, although I imagine it’s normally more than one). This is important. Although exercise in its own right is also key, that’s  a separate issue. The point here is – we need to get active in our daily lives as a starting point at least. I’m not suggesting that the culture of sitting in an office for 8 hours a day is going to change overnight. But there are easy things we can do. Walk instead of getting the bus a couple of stops. Get on your feet for an hour and cook dinner. Walk to the local shops instead of jumping in the car to go to the supermarket. Take the stairs.

I worry about what my generation and those following will be like in old age. I look at elderly people I know now whose internal organs are strong but whose muscles and bones are weak.  They have gradually weakened as their activity levels have become less and less. This worries me because these are people who lived through a world war, who were not reliant on cars for their whole lives, who were more likely to do a job that involved more exertion than sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. And if their muscles are so weak, then what will my generation end up like if we keep up this routine low daily exertion? And the generations following us? All this and the fact that healthcare is better than it ever was. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be confined to my own house unable to walk to the front door for the last 20 years of my life.

Elderly people also suffer more commonly from mal-nutrition. This seems odd to some because they often eat more healthily than most. But because they aren’t mobile, they don’t eat enough. And when you only need few calories, it’s much more difficult for your body to get the correct nutrients from the food you give it. Someone who exercises will need more calories and, in turn, their body is more likely to get the nutrients it needs.

Exercise and nutrition are very much inter-twined. The amount of exercise you do should determine how much you eat and the amount you eat will determine how much energy you have. Health is dependent on both of these things. There are lots of things that can be done within the environments that we live to try and make us live more healthily, both in relation to food and exercise, but I’m not going to go into all these here. And there are no guarantees of course. We can’t force people to use their environment in the way it was planned.

Today, however, all I ask is that people please use the stairs instead of the lift. This should not be a big ask. It might be a struggle on day one but, trust me, after the first week you’ll be used to it. And when you make those extra steps, just think of yourself in your old age and how you’d like to spend those last years.  And I also ask developers and architects to make sure that there are always accessible stairs in a building for people to use. This is my small contribution to healthy communities. It is a small step. But small steps often add up to big ones.

New York City have produced an excellent guide on Active Design in buildings, promoting physical activity and health in design. It can be viewed here.

The GLA also have a good practice guide on health issues in planning, available here.

And if you want to know more about fitness and why it’s good for you I’d definitely recommend reading Survival of the Fittest by Mike Stroud. Because it’s important. And if everyone read it and took its views on board, then we’d probably save the NHS a lot of money.

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