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Resolve to improve your health, and your community's

The Baltimore Sun

New Year's resolutions are made with the very best of intentions, but many will fail before the year is out.

Let's start with the good news. Often our resolutions target critical health behaviors. Increasing exercise, promoting a healthy weight, reducing trans fat intake, quitting smoking and drinking only in moderation would reduce hundreds of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S.

So why do we drop our resolutions by the wayside?

What would make them more likely to succeed?

People often ignore, at their peril, the social and physical environments that promote and perpetuate unhealthful behaviors. Availability is a key factor. If there's junk food in the refrigerator, there's a good chance you'll be eating junk food. If you go to a bar, you'll probably drink.

But availability is not just a personal decision. Studies suggest that neighborhood factors are linked to exercise and eating habits. Many urban neighborhoods have few safe places to exercise or to buy low-cost, healthful foods. This is one reason people living in poverty have higher rates of health problems.

Another key determinant of health behaviors is one's social network. Who do you know who can encourage and reinforce healthful behaviors? A recent 32-year study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine found that one's chances of becoming obese increased by almost 60 percent if a friend became obese. Rather than resolving - perhaps unrealistically - to jog every day, how about a resolution to talk to supportive friends about finding a jogging partner?

Research also suggests that less-vigorous exercise, such as walking, has tremendous health benefits. Walking each day of the week with a different companion can enhance your social network and physical health. The bonus is that individuals with greater social networks tend to live longer and have higher levels of psychological well-being. Other social resolutions might be to serve your family meals without trans fats or to work with your neighbors to get a walking and bicycle trail built in your neighborhood.

Likewise, we should think beyond ourselves, our networks and our neighborhoods and help shape our larger environment to become more conducive to healthful choices. We're not all Ulysses who can tie ourselves down to resist the siren call of potato chips. It makes sense to institute policies that make healthier choices easier and more accessible.

Our resolutions could also carry this notion a step further by advocating policies that reduce availability of harmful substances and enhance healthful behaviors.

Bolstering laws and policies on cigarette vending machines and the pernicious advertising to minors of alcohol, replacing junk food with healthful alternatives and increasing physical exercise in schools are likely to significantly increase the nation's health. A New Year's resolution to encourage innovative state and local programs and polices that can enhance the availability of nutritious foods and exercise options in urban environments, such as zoning changes to increase sidewalks, biking lanes and green spaces, can help make healthier behaviors the more desirable choice.

Promoting workplace health and safety on and off the job can encourage individual and community health. An added bonus is that such efforts are also likely to reduce health care bills.

Why not start the New Year off with some social and environmental resolutions? Have big goals and take small steps with family and friends to improve your health - and that of the community you live in.

Carl Latkin is a professor in the department of health, behavior and society at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. David Holtgrave is a professor and chairman of the department. Andrea Carlson Gielen is a professor and the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Hopkins.

Clarence Page's column will return soon.

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