Tom Eblen: Lexington can shock the critics

October 9, 2011 

Tom Eblen

  • If you go

    What: 2nd Sunday and Sedentary Parade. Non-moving "parade" kicks off afternoon of activities, health information and demonstrations; food and drinks available.

    When: 2-6 p.m. Oct. 9.

    Where: Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza, CentrePointe lot and Phoenix Park, downtown Lexington.

    Info: (859) 244-1944, Gethealthylexington.org. For activities in your county, go to 2ndsundayky.com.

When Men's Health magazine declared in June that Lexington is the nation's most sedentary city, some people got angry. Others challenged the highly suspect data on which the ranking was based.

But local leaders and health advocates were thrilled. After all, what could be better motivation for changing the ugly truths behind that ranking?

"We know we're not really the most sedentary city," Mayor Jim Gray said. "But we also know we're not the healthiest, either."

Men's Health's slap at Lexington is a focus of this weekend's Second Sunday celebration, which is likely to bring thousands of people to the CentrePointe meadow downtown from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Festivities begin with a Sedentary Parade — that's a parade that doesn't move — and continue with a 5K race, a bike ride, a health fair and lots of opportunities for fun and exercise.

This is the fourth year for Second Sunday, a statewide effort in which almost all of Kentucky's 120 counties close a prominent street and encourage residents to come outside and exercise.

Some communities, including Lexington, have expanded the program to monthly during good weather. For the second year, Blue Grass Airport closed its second runway on the second Sunday of June, and thousands came out to play on it. The airport plans to make it an annual event.

The Men's Health ranking built support for Get Healthy Lexington, a partnership of local businesses that helps put together Second Sunday and similar initiatives.

So where do we go from here?

Jay McChord, an Urban County Council member and one of Second Sunday's founders, has some ideas. "What if we gave Men's Health a better story for next year?" he said. "What if Lexington became an inspiration for the entire country?"

McChord dreams of a follow-up story like this: America's most sedentary city becomes a model of civic fitness. That attracts national attention and funding from private foundations to help Lexington build more infrastructure to make walking, biking and other physical activity a part of everyday life.

In many ways, America's fitness landscape is ironic. On one hand, organized youth sports have never been more popular. Adult athletic events such as this weekend's Bourbon Chase fill up only hours after registration opens. On the other hand, more Americans than ever before are overweight and out of shape, and they suffer from diseases that are the result of sedentary lifestyles.

It is easy to see how that happened. Adults drive more and walk less. They ride elevators and avoid stairs. Children play outside less and with video games more.

Because of safety concerns and suburban subdivision design, parents drive children everywhere rather than letting them walk or ride a bike.

McChord uses an economic analogy: We have the health "rich" and the health "poor," but we have lost the large "middle class of health." So how can we rebuild it?

As Lexington grows more dense to preserve farmland and limit the costly infrastructure of suburban sprawl, more attention must be paid to creating a less automobile-centric city, Gray said. That will give people more opportunities to incorporate physical activity into their everyday lives.

McChord said several national philanthropic foundations are giving hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to cities and organizations to help them accomplish significant policy changes that promote good health.

What policy changes could work in Lexington? McChord said city officials want to expand so-called joint-use agreements with schools and churches to make public and private athletic fields and playgrounds more available for everyone to use.

He said it also is important to change city development plans and building codes to encourage more physical activity. For example, McChord said, developers could get tax breaks for including bike racks or other facilities in their projects.

Painting more bicycle lanes on streets and building more multi-use trails are important steps. "The Legacy Trail opened up a lot of people's eyes to what was possible," McChord said. "We live in one of the most beautiful places in America. We've got to figure out more ways to enjoy it outside of a car."

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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