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The Baltimore Sun

Americans have long pursued activities aimed at improving their personal health or improving the planet's health.

Recently, though, some with one aspiration or the other are seeing a link - when they bike to work, buy local and organic foods or spruce up a park, as Julie Tasillo did one recent Saturday in South Baltimore.

"We're helping our own environment," said Tasillo, of Locust Point, as she cleaned, mulched and planted greens alongside other volunteers at Riverside Park. "There are definitely personal benefits, also. I'm definitely getting a workout."

Some health and environmental advocates say they are starting to see more purposeful planning of workouts, chores and meals that are environmentally friendly. These people see their health is dependent on the health of their surroundings.

As Earth Day, on Tuesday, approaches, some are committing to reduce what one author terms their "fitness footprint."

Like a carbon footprint that measures environmental impacts from activities like driving and cooling the house, a fitness footprint is the impact from lifestyle choices like diet and exercise.

Kathleen Rogers, president of the information clearinghouse Earth Day Network, said the nascent trend might result from the barrage of stories about warmed air, fouled water and tainted food, as well as the growing obesity epidemic. They've see Al Gore's movie about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, or the television show The Biggest Loser, which asks contestants and viewers to eschew disposable water bottles.

Rogers and others believe that many people, particularly in tough economic times, are making lifestyle decisions based on immediate costs. They'll ride a bike or walk to work when gas is expensive and buy organic food when the price isn't higher. But she said more people are considering the long-term costs to their health and surroundings.

"Helping your community ultimately helps yourself," she said. "What we're seeing is an increasing understanding of the risks and benefits of environmental protection. They range from actions people can take to protect their kids from asthma and extend to everything we put in our bodies."

Author Carole Carson said she coined the "fitness footprint" term to put a name to the ethic.

Carson wrote From Fat to Fit, the story of how she helped herself and her small California town lose a collective 8,000 pounds and develop a community spirit. She speaks and writes about exercising and health - and protecting the planet.

Carson said she believes the idea of merging health and eco ethics is still new in the United States, though a trend in "green gym" or eco-friendly workouts is taking off in England. She wants to get the movement into the mainstream here. She suggests some small changes: Walk instead of drive, carry reusable water bottles and canvas shopping bags, pick up trash as you walk, recycle athletic shoes, and turn off the television and computer and go outside for fun.

"It was a natural progression from one to the other," said Carson of her commitment to health and the environment. "It's a matter of stewardship. We are supposed to take care of our body and our community."

At the forefront of the movement these days is food, she and others say.

Buying locally grown, seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables that didn't burn a ton of fossil fuels to get to the consumer is a step, said Beth McGee, a senior water-quality scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

She'll even choose local foods over organic ones if they are shipped long distances. But local organic foods are preferable since they don't use pesticides that might harm consumers and area waterways - which, in turn, can harm consumers further.

McGee said that sometimes those with personal fitness goals notice the connection to the environment before others because they may be outside in the elements more. But everyone can make changes, which, she said, can begin at home.

In the yard, for example, using a push mower instead of a gas-powered one offers a workout and is emissions-free. Pulling weeds instead of using poisons and planting native greens is a day's work, and requires no chemicals and less water.

"I think the ethics go hand in hand," she said. "I think we've reached a turning point where people are getting engaged."

Groups are lining up citizens to push for such things as better access to bike paths and public transportation. Advocates at One Less Car asked the state for bike racks on public buses through postcards from 400 supporters, and the racks are expected by fall. The group also pushed Baltimore for the bike lanes that are now painted on roads including University Parkway and Charles Street. More are planned.

The Maryland Department of Transportation will also add more hybrid buses and triple the MARC commuter train capacity in the next 20 years, said agency Secretary John D. Porcari.

Porcari eventually sees a network of bike and pedestrian trails around the state, so people can recreate as well as commute.

"In some ways, we're restoring the original vision of Baltimore formulated in the 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted, who saw the importance of green networks," Porcari said. Olmsted, whose father, Frederick Olmsted Sr., is considered the father of landscape architecture, unveiled a plan for a long, thin park around the Gwynns Falls Valley.

A 14-mile trail on that route from the center of the city west was finally opened in 2005, linking jobs, museums and more than 30 neighborhoods. Two other major trails are under way or planned and so are three transit-oriented developments, or neighborhoods, built around transit stations.

All this is good planning, said Greg Cantori, executive director of the Marian I. and Henry J. Knott Foundation and board president of One Less Car.

He regularly bikes 22 miles to work and recently logged his 100,000th mile. He's seen a lot of trash, breathed a lot of fumes and dodged a lot of cars pedaling on roads from Pasadena to Hampden during the past dozen years.

Cantori said accessibility and safety are still concerns for bikers, pedestrians and bus and train passengers. He said only two-tenths of 1 percent of people ride their bikes to work locally compared with four-tenths nationally.

"I think about my footprint all the time," he said. "Al Gore has more people thinking about it. But I think it's still mostly talk."

Cantori thinks more people will discover the link between their health and their community's health over time - or when it becomes financially necessary.

"Maybe when there is $6 gas," he said.


Doing your part

Some tips to reduce your fitness footprint:

Bike to work, or walk to the bus or train.

Pick up trash on your walk.

Arrange a park cleanup.

Recycle your tennis shoes.

Turn off the TV and video games, and play outside.

Buy locally grown and organic food, and take your own bag.

Avoid overly processed and packaged food.

Use a push mower on the lawn and pull weeds instead of using herbicides.

Contact lawmakers about creating more bike and pedestrian paths.

[Sources: Carole Carson, Beth McGee, nutritiondata.com, One Less Car]

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