American Journal of Law & Medicine

America's public lands and waters: the gateway to better health?


Obesity is the number one health problem facing America today. (1) The connection to physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle has long been recognized, but only recently has it become a focal point for physicians worldwide. (2) Surprisingly, the answer may be as close as America's backyard--the public lands and waters under the management of the U.S. Department of the Interior ("Interior"), as well as other federal, state, and local agencies. While traditional efforts to increase physical activity among Americans have focused on "exercise"-related activities such as calisthenics, treadmills, or stair machines, more recently leisure-time activities like gardening and housework have emerged as additions to the physical activity arsenal. (3) These activities in turn have shifted attention away from individual obstacles and toward barriers to human movement in the "built environment." (4)

Yet despite a myriad of individual interventions to promote exercise, obesity continues to rise, (5) which is especially troubling when one considers its prevalence among the nation's youth. (6) And while changes to the built environment show promise, they are more likely to be a major factor in providing long-term, rather than short-term, solutions. It is clear that innovative and unconventional strategies to affect health behaviors in positive and more immediate ways are needed.

Rather than developing new and expensive promotional campaigns which advocate redundant messages, we might look for answers in places immediately before us. The vast interconnected outdoor recreation network of federal, state, and local lands and waters present a largely untapped resource which may be capable of helping to achieve this purpose. Combining inherently enjoyable and readily accessible activities with simple, effective, health-related messaging may serve as a gateway to better health.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that obesity is considered the common thread between the three leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. (7) Obesity and its enormous costs to society have become the chief health problem in the United States. (8) While over-consumption and poor eating habits partially account for the obesity crisis, physical inactivity is a critical contributing factor. (9)

The direct causal link between physical inactivity and obesity has been both well documented and well communicated to Americans. (10) Yet despite this fact, obesity has steadily risen over the last thirty years (11) to its epidemic level today. (12) In 2000, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults aged twenty to seventy-four were found to be overweight and 31% obese. (13) The statistics relating to the nation's youth are even more troubling. Data from 1999 to 2000 show that more that 15% of children aged six to nineteen are overweight--double the proportion noted from 1976 through 1980. (14)

At least 75% of adult Americans do not meet the Surgeon General's minimum targets for physical activity, defined as thirty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity most days of the week. (15) Nearly one-third does not engage in any leisure-time physical activity at all. (16) Poor diet and physical inactivity are believed to be a primary contributing factor in at least 400,000 deaths annually in the United States--equivalent to almost 17% of all deaths each year. …

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