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Posted 01.29.07


'Non-Motorized Transportation' Grant Attracts Attention of MU Obesity Researchers

COLUMBIA, MO - The American Obesity Association reports that 64.5 percent of adults in the United States are overweight and 30.5 percent are obese. Now, in an effort to help fight obesity, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers will take part in a new pilot project in four states that will determine whether changes to a community's infrastructure can encourage physical activity, such as walking or bicycling.

MU researchers are taking advantage of a unique opportunity, provided by the city of Columbia's role in the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program, to study how changes in infrastructure of a community can affect the physical activity behavior of its residents. The study is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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"We are facing an obesity epidemic in our country," said Steve Sayers, assistant professor of physical therapy in the MU School of Health Professions. "Much of the problem can be linked to the sedentary lifestyle of modern society and our lack of physical activity."

Physical activity is vital in the prevention of obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, but over the past 50 years, physical activity has been engineered out of daily lifestyles, Sayers said. The ways in which cities are organized and built now favor motorized transportation and discourage physical activity. People no longer walk to school, work, the grocery store, or other places they go regularly.

As part of the federally funded pilot program, Columbia has received a $25 million grant to fund the completion of comprehensive bicycling and walking networks, such as sidewalks, bike lanes and trails. These networks would help people reach transit stations, businesses, schools, homes and other destinations without using their cars. Three other communities in the United States have received such a grant: Marin County, Calif., Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. and Sheboygan County, Wis.

"Previous studies have simply compared a city with physical activity infrastructure to one without," Sayers said. "This will be one of the first studies of this magnitude to look at physical activity behavior and leisure time physical activity before and after planned infrastructure changes in the same community."

Sayers will conduct a telephone survey of Columbia residents to assess the level of physical activity before the infrastructure changes. The researchers also will interview residents in Lawrence, Kan., who will serve as a control group because of the demographic similarities between Columbia and Lawrence. The interviews will be conducted in the spring and concluded before June 2007 when infrastructure changes begin in Columbia. Two years later, researchers will conduct another assessment of the same individuals and look at how physical activity levels have changed. Sayers hopes to continue to evaluate changes in physical activity behavior in other future surveys to determine the long-term effects of these infrastructure changes.

"Even if physical activity increases by only a small amount in our community, the impact of those changes on obesity-related chronic disease at the national level could significantly reduce the burden on our health care system," Sayers said. "If we discover these infrastructure changes have positively impacted physical activity behavior and leisure time physical activity, then we can strongly advocate legislators to help make these changes happen on a national level."

Sayers' research team includes Joe LeMaster, assistant professor of family and community medicine, Frank Booth, professor of biomedical sciences, and Sarah Gable, associate professor of human environmental sciences.



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