Urban Living is Good for Your Health

I’ve got a totally earth-shattering revelation for you: moving more is good for your health. Related news: not moving at all might be really bad for it.

Okay, now that you’ve gotten over the shock, I suppose I’d better warn you that this post is not going to contain any meaningful research or science. So, yeah, you can stop reading now if you want.

Fixin' to commute

Fixin’ to commute

Instead, I’m going to share a bit of a personal story. Let’s begin about a decade ago when I was a young associate at a big east coast (sorry, “international”) law firm. I had finally managed to convince myself to spend what it took to purchase a condo in housing-booming DC and purchased my first car that wasn’t a hand-me-down from my parents or brother.

My new place was about a mile and a half from the office, near Logan Circle. Up until then, I’d walked to work from an apartment about five blocks away. I figured I would keep walking and primarily use the car to go for groceries on the weekends and for general amusement.

I was wrong. The first spring morning that I woke up to a world covered in a blanket of yellow tree pollen, I told myself I’d just drive for a few weeks so I didn’t have to spend the first few hours of the day as a sneezy, allergy-ridden mess.

Then it was June and summer in DC. The humidity. I told myself I’d drive until things cooled off because I didn’t want to arrive at the office a giant sweaty mess.

Needless to say, I wasn’t getting the built-in exercise that I’d hoped for. Moreover, I’d compound the issue with food choices. Being a busy little billing machine, I’d leave the office late (after 7 or much later), when traffic wasn’t really an obstacle, but I still wasn’t feeling the energy to cook. I’d order pizza or Chinese, or, even worse drive past home to go to Wendy’s so I could get something to eat without having to get out of the car.

Yes, you read that right. I’d make a terrible, unhealthy and (in my opinion) not all that tasty food choice just to avoid getting out of the car. Talk about lazy.

One of those evenings reviewing large quantities of documents in a windowless room, some of my work friends encouraged me to start eating healthier and cooking my own food. They offered simple suggestions and recommended a decent cookbook or two. That was really nice of them, but I can be pretty stubborn so it took me awhile to see that they were right.

I was up to about 260 pounds and feeling terrible. I found I couldn’t keep up with a friend who commuted on foot over a 6 block walk to catch a movie. Walking four blocks to the store felt like a daunting distance, so I’d drive, getting frustrated if there was no parking. And I wasn’t exactly happy. I was worried about my health and decided I needed to change.

I stopped driving. I started walking and I started cooking. With those two changes – walking a mile and a half every morning to work (and more often than not back home again) and cooking nearly all of my own dinners – I dropped a lot of that extra weight. I felt better and I felt better about myself.

Commutin'

Commutin’

Oh, yeah, well, the relatively long weekend bike rides helped too. (I really liked my 25 mile loop up the Capital Crescent to Bethesda and back down through Rock Creek Park to home). The money I saved on not paying for parking more than paid for a bike (not that money tends to be short for big law firm associates with no kids) .

Much to my luck, there was a grocery store between my home and the office, which meant that I could make an easy stop on my way home several times a week, which made eating fresh fruit, vegetables and meats easier. Stopping might have added ten minutes to my commute, but I’d still arrive home having gotten a half hour of exercise, with something nutritious to eat and having been through zero road rage.

But more than that I got to the point where a longer walk was no longer daunting. Wanting to track my progress, I walked around 6 miles round trip to get a bathroom scale from Target in Columbia Heights (the DC version). I felt so much better.

When it was time to move back to Minnesota, I’d learned something: I’m terrible at making myself go to the gym. While I love walking and biking, I hate treadmills and stationary bikes. If I was going to have any hope of maintaining my new-found healthy habits, I needed to live somewhere from which I could walk to work. I picked Loring Park over the North Loop and Mill District because I wanted to be close enough to be able to use the skyways. The view didn’t hurt either.

Yer doin' it wrong

Yer doin’ it wrong

At that time, though, the only walkable grocery option was the downtown Target. The convenience was great, but nearly everything I buy at the grocery store comes from the produce and fresh meat sections, which are not Target’s focus. Driving across the river on Saturday to grab groceries worked reasonably well, but planning out the week’s meals and shopping at the busiest possible times just makes for a different kind of lifestyle, especially when things getting busy at the office can so easily interfere with the plan.

The opening of a Lunds at 12th and Hennepin was a game changer. I’ve said before in the comments here and elsewhere that I think everyone should live within easy walking distance of a grocery store, a liquor store (these first two really should be one store), a pharmacy and at least two places to eat. For me, it is profoundly beneficial to health and happiness.

I don’t belong to a gym. I rarely drive during the week. I do essentially all of my errands on foot. Rush hour is not at all an aggravation.

In short, I live the way people in urban areas used to live (except maybe I don’t use transit as much); the way people in urban areas outside the U.S. still live.

I wrote this post wearing clothes in sizes I’ve not worn since high school. Living in the city didn’t make me more active, healthier and happier, but it provided conditions that made achieving those things a lot easier. Everyone should try it.

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16 Responses to Urban Living is Good for Your Health

  1. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell January 20, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Here here! I think the vast majority of people are quite bad at going to the gym and active transportation is likely the best and healthiest thing we can do for ourselves. Anything we can do to make choosing active transportation and eating fresh food easier is a good thing.

    My only disagreement is in combining food and booze. Dedicated stores have much better options for beer, wine, and Scotch. 🙂

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 20, 2015 at 9:48 am #

      There is no reason you can’t have both, but the notion that having a dinner party requires stopping at to different stores is pretty silly.

  2. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD January 20, 2015 at 9:06 am #

    Up until my mid20s I never even considered walking or bicycling. They weren’t bad or good or anything, I just never considered it. I drove everywhere, even if only a few blocks. I lived in places that encouraged driving. Even if it occured to me to walk, there would have been no where to walk to. I was average weight, but gaining. Despite being a life-long vegetarian I ate at lots of appetizers at chain restaurants. Working at Perkins certainly didn’t help. My cholestoral levels were high for someone my age and my blood pressure was worrying, particularly given parents with high blood pressure.

    Then I moved to Lyn-Lake. Parking was a pain, especially for a trip of six blocks to a coffee shop. When I first started walking it felt like a huge accomplishment, Everest-scaling feat to walk six blocks. It was easier, though, so I kept doing it. Then I started dating a lovely man who didn’t own a car. He rollerbladed (yes) everywhere and took the bus in the winter. While traveling in Europe I had taken public tranportation, but for him it was normal. This was crazy to me, but walking and bussing were normal so they slowly became normal to me.

    About this time my father gave me a Target Schwinn. I walked to Kmart on Lake Street and bought some Reeboks and a sports bra and started biking around the block. I felt like a total idiot. I was scared of cars, felt like jerk, and was absolutely uncomfortable. When the bike was stolen out of my apartment garage I didn’t even bother to do anything. Good riddance!

    Some time later, thanks to the influence of dear boyfriend, I was becoming used to walking and thought that, despite my neative feelings about the last bike, maybe, just maybe a bike might be nice to get around a bit. My mother told me she had a bike for me, but it would need a little work. I drove out to Burnsville to get the bike and OMG!!!! It was a 1952 Schwinn Corvette that had been hanging in her neighbor’s garage for 40 years. It was in almost perfect condition. This was amazing. I got myself a new sundress and a straw hat with a ribbon and was off and pedaling. I was cute. I felt cool. I loved the chrome fenders and book rack. I would pull into the coffee shop or Mortimers on my amazing bike and knew I was the epitome of cool.

    Now, Betty is a great bike, but also very heavy (43 pounds). My sister ran her first marathon and this inspired me. Could the dear boy and I do a bike tour? I had never biked more than a few miles, but knew I’d need a lighter bike. We saved up some cash (he only had a BMX and his trusty rollerblades that he used to skitch on Green Betty) and bought touring bikes. At first I’d bike the Greenway with my new computer and do 12 miles and lie there and shake. Soon, 12 was 20 and 20 was 40 miles. That summer we did our first unsupported bike tour in Wisconsin. Did I mention we smoked? There are great pictures of us in our spandex kits and camping gear, sharing a smoke at a Wisco roadside bar. Nice.

    We got married. We quit smoking. We bought a house and had kids. Green Betty became my maternity bike. I bought a winter bike as my “seasons” stopped ending in the cold and snow. My cholesterol hasn’t been high in a decade. My blood pressue is on the way low end of normal. I can bike 70 miles with camping gear and a child in tow with no problem. Mostly, though, it’s fun. When I talk to bike-curious people I can talk up the health benefits and all that, but I always stress the fun. Every ride is an adventure, even going to the grocery store yesterday with the kids and the cargo bike ended up an adventure, caught up in blacklivesmatter protest on University. My co-workers come to work griping about parking and snow and traffic and all that and I can laugh to myself because I had an adventure in the snow and got to work fresh and crisp and happy.

    Preaching to the choir here, but as a policy-wonk (albeit in a different policy area than transportation), I can’t help but think of the lessons learned and how they apply more broadly. I needed places to bike and walk to. I needed urban design that made it the most convenient choice. I needed a bike that made me feel good. Bike infrastructure wasn’t necessary, but was helpful. All those trails made the longer distances feasible. Now that I am biking with children, safe roads are even more important (although not the end all be all – I did have kids on University Avenue yesterday). Things like bike lockers and showers made it easy to bike 15 miles to work. Moving closer to my job made it even easier and then I didn’t need the shower, although the bike locker is still great. Housing close to jobs and transit for those days when I want a different choice. Snow cleared from crosswalks and shoveled sidewalks. I read once about a survey of why people walk and bike. I can’t remember the citation, but it seemed so obvious. Americans talked about fitness and being green. Europeans talked about how it was the easiest choice. How do we make biking and walking the easy choice?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 20, 2015 at 9:52 am #

      Great story, thanks!

      I think a lot of people come from where you (and I) started, where they don’t even think about whether active transportation is an option, because it’s easier to drive.

      And I think there is insight in how parking being difficult in Lyn-Lake changed those incentives.

  3. aexx January 20, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    A great story! I wholeheartedly agree.

    I have a car and have definitely used it in ways that I shouldn’t (making a 5 block trek to the grocery store…yikes!), but I’ve realized just how much I walk now that I’m back working downtown. The ability to take transit most of the way and then the skyways really help me get moving. (Yeah, the skyways have me walking more).

    Despite doing a decent amount of walking, I still keep a gym membership because I’ve found that a young, urban lifestyle with lots of places to eat and drink means any hope of staying in halfway decent shape requires some extra exercise on top of the walking.

  4. N St Paul Snowman January 20, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    I don’t know if this is exclusive to urban living as much as it is having conditions for other options. I live in the ‘burbs but in a fairly walkable area that allows for me to walk to church, to the park, and to nearby stores. It isn’t perfect, but if you live closer to a node and have options other than cars, then you can be healthy. I still do drive the 5 miles to work — and park way in the back so I get a good walk in.

    Essentially, I started paying more attention to the choices I make to get places. This allowed me to use my feet and my bicycle more often. No skyscrapers needed.

    • Matt Brillhart January 20, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      I think most of the folks on this site would classify North St. Paul (I’m assuming that’s where you are, based on your username) as urban, rather than suburban. That goes for other walkable nodes like the downtown areas of Hopkins, Robbinsdale, White Bear Lake, Excelsior, Chaska, etc. All of the above have historic, walkable cores, even if they now exist within greater suburbia. They may not all have grocery stores within that walkable core, but they do at least present the option to walk places.

  5. Joseph Totten
    Joseph Totten January 20, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    Student at U of MN, living off campus in Marcy-Holmes was great, Lunds was between 3 and 8 blocks away, and walking or biking to campus was as fast as the 6 ever got me there. (A new bus started there apparently… free ride, meant to shuttle students, wonder why they didn’t do one to Como too.)

    When I moved to Como I really kinda hated it. I had other stores nearby, but not even a wannabe grocery like Santana Foods or anything. I had hardware, gas/convenience, restaurants, and clothing. Now I can go to the dentist by walking, but cannot buy fruit. I got my car this summer and have been feeling like I’m overusing it ever since. Living where I could bike commute, and get 50 bucks worth of good food on a walk is something I’m looking for in future living because of it.

  6. Casey January 20, 2015 at 11:10 am #

    I have never had a drivers licence. I pretty much walk every where, sometimes bus. The only issue I have is that I wish we had more bodegas. There used to be so many little stores you could pick up veggies, milk and bread but it seems rare to see one now.

    • Wayne January 22, 2015 at 9:51 am #

      I gave mine up almost ten years ago when I moved here. I don’t miss it, but this city definitely isn’t anywhere near the top of my list for places that are easy to live without a car. I wish it would change, but I’m giving up hope when most of the transit investment is made in unwalkable suburban areas instead of places I can walk once I get off the bus/train. Even the most walkable parts of town are deathtraps for pedestrians (uptown, near northeast).

      • Casey January 22, 2015 at 10:12 am #

        Very true, I can’t count how many times I have almost been hit by cars. I tend to stick to residential streets, prettier with trees and houses and that neighborhood feel.

        • Wayne January 22, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

          I’m nearly killed by impatient/careless/asshole drivers on a daily basis, but I’ve been actually legit hit by them twice since I’ve lived here. One time a person who ran a stop sign and hit me pretty hard (knocked me into the intersection, black and blue bruises for weeks) had the audacity to roll down their window and say “don’t walk in front of cars” before speeding off. Not “are you ok?” or “I’m so sorry!”

          So basically I’m on the warpath when I’m walking and I dare someone to try to bump me because I will lose it on them.

  7. Jeff January 20, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    Great post!

  8. UrbanBearrister January 20, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    “One of those evenings reviewing large quantities of documents in a windowless room”

    So what your story boils down to… is that you had the “privilege” of “redacting” stressful commuting and unhealthy foods from your life, leading to fewer “issues” and a lifestyle more “responsive” to the needs of the urban environment. These are ideas that a lot of folks could stand to give “further review”. 😀

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 20, 2015 at 6:18 pm #

      Bear-y insightful 😉

  9. teresa boardman January 25, 2015 at 7:34 am #

    I have a home office but live in one of the most walkable parts of the twin cities, just outside of downtown St. Paul. I can and do bike to the grocery store and can and do walk to most meetings and events I have downtown. I can and have walked to the greenline and ridden it to Minneapolis. I never want to live in the burbs and some day I hope to own an even smaller home and have less and think it would be wonderful to not even own a car.

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