A Walk in the Forest

The world is changing. Global populations continue to migrate to urban areas. These ongoing relocations have a profound impact on deeply interconnected environmental systems and also lead to substantial distortions in human biosystems. In a word and to no one's surprise, living in big cities comes with a big cost in terms of our health and well-being.

The takeaway is not to turn around and go back to the countryside. Most persons living in large cities would not desire to pack up and move. Worldwide, people head to the cities seeking employment, a greater variety of opportunities, and hopefully an improved standard of living. The fact that frequently these aspirations are not fulfilled does not deter their friends, family, and fellow villagers from following the same course. Most large cities continue to get larger.

The takeaway relates to the methods and means we can employ to counter the effects of living in the big city. These often deleterious effects are well-known and yet worth repeating. Urban air quality is notoriously poor. We all can easily conjure up a mind's-eye view of the oily ochre tint of many metropolitan skies. Food in many urban areas has lost much of its nutritional value owing to the great distances meat, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables have to travel to get to the city supermarkets and marketplaces. Water quality is often degraded by nearby industry and sewage treatment plants. Green space is at a premium in most urban environments - there are few places in which to play outdoors.

How can we combat these tradeoffs in air quality, water quality, food quality, and lack of nurturing green space? First, it's important to recognize that these tradeoffs exist. The human organism was not designed to live in crowded cities. Our bodies were designed to thrive in a richly diverse outdoors environment, sowing and reaping in various ways and participating in complex ecosystems.

Now most of that is gone and we pay the price in terms of lifestyle diseases - diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disorders.1,2,3 The good news is that there are many action steps we can take to restore precious health to ourselves and our loved ones.

Two specific actions focus on food quality and outdoor activity. First, whenever possible, buy food produced locally. In general and all things being equal, the less distance food has to travel to get to the dining table the more nutritious it is. Food produced nearby is always best. Increasingly, farmers markets are making locally produced food available to urban populations in even the biggest cities. All that's required is to find out where the local farmers are setting-up their stands.

The other specific action involves engaging in outdoor activities several times per week. Getting outdoors is important in big cities, even though air quality leaves much to be desired. Being in the presence of sunlight, trees, flowers, birds and small wildlife, and shrubs, plants, and ground cover provides nourishment that is not measured in calories. Humans need to interact with other living species in order to thrive, in order to become more fully alive.

By taking simple, doable, healthful actions on our own behalf, we can become healthier and happier members of our great urban communities.

1Zhao Z, Kaestner R: Effects of urban sprawl on obesity. J Health Econ 29(6):779-787, 2010
2Coombes E, et al: The relationship of physical activity and overweight to objectively measured green space accessibility and use. Soc Sci Med 70(6):816-822, 2010
3Sallis JF, Glanz K: Physical activity and food environments: solutions to the obesity. Milbank Q 87(1):123-154, 2009

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