Want to get happy? Advocates for Health in Action say get off the couch | Citizen | Indy Week
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Want to get happy? Advocates for Health in Action say get off the couch 

click to enlarge On the greenway at the N.C. Museum of Art.

Photo by Bob Geary

On the greenway at the N.C. Museum of Art.

I'm depressed thinking about the declining labor economy in the United States. Outsourcing! Robots! Enough! I need to ride my bicycle.

Yes, that's better. Two hours riding my bicycle in Raleigh on a brilliant spring afternoon has me in a proper mood to write about the public realm as an antidote to what ails us.

First of all, the public realm is an economic balm, because it's free. I rode my bike up Hillsborough Street and across the N.C. State campus to the Rocky Branch Greenway, from which (after a bit of sidewalk riding) I connected to the Reedy Creek Greenway, which traverses the Meredith College campus and is quite spectacular this time of year. It leads to the N.C. Museum of Art, with its jewel of a park and walking trails.

All free.

I saw a mom running, pushing her twins in a stroller. Saw a guy flying a kite. And a group of girls spinning their hula hoops while a tyke paused on his tricycle to watch, and his mom watched him. Human cinema. Free. Quite a few senior citizens were out walking, talking. Lovers strolled. Students hustled. This was Monday afternoon.

If our elected officials won't address the problem of wealth inequality directly—and they haven't—it occurs to me that there's another way to offset the imbalance: increase the supply of free public goods—of parks, of sidewalks, of nice places to be—that everyone can enjoy regardless of means.

Connect them to public transit that is, if not free, then inexpensive, and obviates the need to own a car.

No, I haven't forgotten about schools, libraries and other free indoor spaces that improve our minds. But just now, it's spring and the air is cool. Besides, we spend way too much time in our private cocoons staring at computer screens and dispatching robots to do what we used to call work. It's unhealthy.

And it's depressing, a point brought home to me by Sara Merz, the executive director of Advocates for Health in Action, a Wake County group that calls itself "aha."

Aha, because active living—walking, riding a bike, working in a garden—is good for your health.

click to enlarge Which way on the greenways? - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
  • Photo by Bob Geary
  • Which way on the greenways?

Aha, too, because active living makes people happier. Walking and making eye contact with others ramps up our oxytocin—a hormone associated with feelings of wellness and safety.

"This fits with our experience of feeling wound up and then taking a walk outside and the world being right again," Merz told me.

AHA started at WakeMed seven years ago after a community health assessment found obesity to be a growing epidemic. Working through partner organizations, the group has two objectives: promote healthy eating practices and advocate "built environments" that "promote active living."

In the first vein, it works with schools and other agencies to champion local foods and community gardens. In the second, it tries to help local governments integrate better "placemaking" practices into their planning and development decisions.

Merz, a Minnesota transplant, took the helm 16 months ago, leading a two-person staff plus volunteers. She's proven to be a high-energy missionary, helping AHA win in the urban stewardship category at the city of Raleigh's Environmental Awards ceremony last week.

Obesity is still winning, Merz acknowledges. Individual behavior is highly resistant to change. But it does change in response to changes in public policy and the built environment of neighborhoods and communities.

If we want healthy, happy people around us, we'll need to create more places for folks to walk to, ride a bike to, and to walk, ride and enjoy themselves in. We have some, but not nearly enough. We have some big opportunities coming up:

Moore Square. Having dodged some big, bad plans of yesteryear to mess up this historic place, Raleigh this week hosts two meetings at City Market (April 29, 2-4 p.m., and April 30, 6-8 p.m.) to consider a gentler fix-up. Missing: how to create appealing bike and walking trails to and from the square.

Bus transit. May 11, 6 p.m. at the Raleigh Convention Center kicks off the latest series of meetings on Wake County's evolving bus and rail transit plan. Next: creating bus stops in desirable locations that people can reach on foot or bicycle—without risking their lives.

Warehouse District. Raleigh's arts district is a hub for walkers, riders and a new Amtrak station. Will it remain so if high-rise development displaces the old brick fabric?

Dix Park. How about, to get things started, community gardens alongside the Farmers Market? With bike trails, of course.

After I spoke with Merz, I read the 2015 World Happiness Report, issued by the United Nations. It measures how nations stack up on economic and health measures and "life satisfaction"—are people happy?

Six of the top eight nations are Scandinavian social democracies, where incomes are relatively equal and, yes, more people ride bikes to work than cars. The United States ranks 15th.

Wrote Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, an editor: "Economic development is important. ... But what is perhaps most important is our lives as 'social animals,' to use Aristotle's famous phrase."

Or as H.G. Wells said: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Free ride."

  • Upcoming meetings highlight Raleigh's plans for biker and walkers

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