Trails to Wellness

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Pretty much everyone has access to the outdoors. This means that theoretically, anyone who wants to can go walking, jogging, or — with a small investment — biking outdoors. But whether a person actually does these activities depends, in large measure, on motivation. What makes a person walk or bike to the grocery store, rather than driving a car?

Sidewalks, of course, are provided for walking in most urban environments. But a case study presented earlier this month suggests that trails provide greater motivation for outdoor physical activity. Presented at the EPI/NPAM (Epidemiology and Prevention/Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism) 2012 Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association, the study examined two low-income neighborhoods in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to an article on the study at, one neighborhood featured a newly built, wide recreation trail that spanned two miles and connected public housing, single-family houses, a school, a library, a recreation center, a park, and retail shops. The other neighborhood had a similar profile, but only older sidewalks to connect its public housing, single-family homes, school, and park. The researchers found that on a daily basis, there was significantly more vigorous physical activity seen along the trail and in the park on the trail than in the neighborhood with the conventional sidewalk.

While this result might seem unsurprising, previous case studies of trails have focused on higher-income areas — so it was a valid question whether trails would encourage physical activity as much in impoverished areas as in affluent ones. The result is particularly significant because as multiple studies have shown, Type 2 diabetes disproportionately affects lower-income areas. Furthermore, people in poorer areas may be less likely to have extra leisure time for exercise, making close access to outdoor recreation areas that much more important.

Of course, having trails nearby can be a great motivator to exercise in any neighborhood. Do you find trails to be a better motivator than sidewalks when it comes to planned exercise? If you live near a trail, does it lead to more unplanned, spontaneous walking for you than a sidewalk would? Are you satisfied with the outdoor recreation options in your neighborhood? Would you be willing to pay more in taxes in exchange for a nearby trail or park? Leave a comment below!

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