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Dr. Paul Higgins: People making a difference

 At first glance, global warming and obesity appear to be disparate issues linked only through the scope of their impact. Please don’t tell that to Dr. Paul Higgins.

Dr. Higgins has gained notoriety from his research connecting Americans’ increasingly sedentary lifestyle with the obesity epidemic and global warming. The idea first came to him a few years ago while having dinner with his parents. When heaping plates of food arrived at the table, they wondered how that excess food energy could be put to better use, especially as a means to power emissions-free transportation.

Higgins calculates that if Americans substituted the recommended levels of daily physical activity for current car trips, we could all but eliminate obesity. And if this is not motivation enough, Higgins’ research found cutting car trips would also ease obesity-related health care spending and reduce American greenhouse emissions by more than a third. “I see these problems being linked by our dependence on the automobile for our transportation,” says Higgins.

According to Higgins, “If you look at the country, moving from east to west, you can see the development patterns are heavily influenced by when the car was taking off.” He goes on to say that “the later the country was built up, the less you tend to walk. If you live in the suburbs, you may find it difficult to find an alternative to the car.”

While Higgins freely admits his calculations represent only potential benefits, many of the hurdles to human-powered transportation could be overcome through design of active living communities. “Urban planners have tremendous opportunities to make more walkable and bikeable communities where those are a legitimate way to get around.”

Higgins says the strongest reaction to his work has been from individuals rethinking what it means to be physically active. “I think we all inherently think that we either need to diet or we need to set aside time to go to the gym, or things along those lines to get the exercise we need to be physically fit.” However, “you don’t actually burn as much energy going to the gym as you do integrating exercise into daily life.” In the end, Higgins concludes that “If we just integrate a little physical exercise into our day, we can go a long way toward being fit and healthy.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Dr. Paul Higgins is a Congressional Science Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society. He was also a visiting research fellow at the University of California at Berkeley and was an investigator for the National Science Foundation.

You can read his latest research on exercise-based transportation in Environmental Conservation.

Learn more about climate change in an interactive summary of the National Academy of Sciences’ recent report, “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions”.

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