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MU professor to monitor health, trails

During the next few years, research grants will allow Sayers to monitor physical activity.

Feb. 6, 2007

An upcoming research project conducted by MU physical therapy professor Steve Sayers might once and for all confirm that Columbia citizens are healthier than the citizens of Lawrence, Kan., home to MU rival University of Kansas.

"Obviously, Columbians have their problems with KU, but that doesn't affect the research," Sayers said.

Sayers' project recently secured $200,000 of funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization devoted to American health and health care. The study will begin this spring as researchers conduct phone surveys to collect physical activity data from Columbia residents living by a proposed network of pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly trails and paths.

In 2005, Columbia became one of four communities in the U.S. to be included in the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, receiving a $22 million grant to promote alternatives to driving.

Additionally, an independent, registered non-profit organization, the PedNet Coalition, received a similar $200,000 Robert Wood Johnson grant for its Bike, Walk and Wheel initiative.

"There's a sort of history involved (with) the city of Columbia," said Frank Booth, a professor of physiology in the MU School of Medicine. "When the city of Columbia obtained (the federal grant money) for improved bike trails, that opened up the door. Having those trails available helped raise the scientific question."

Booth helped introduce Sayers to Ian Thomas of PedNet, which has shared its ideas and resources with the MU research team. Thomas, PedNet's executive director, said the partnership has been mutually beneficial.

"We have been made aware that to document our success, we really had to do some research," Thomas said. "So Steve and I got together late last summer and early in the fall to do a count of pedestrians at certain intersections."

Thomas said his group goes out counting for an hour every morning for one week, four times a year. The group began last October and went for a second time in January. He said there was a decline in numbers from October to January, but he attributed it to the weather.

"We still had a surprising number," he said.

As the research is gearing up, PedNet is too. Thomas said this spring, it will prepare its Bike, Walk and Wheel Week, slated to take place May 12-19.

It will also revive its Walking School Bus program, utilizing adult volunteers to walk elementary school students to and from school.

"We're doing that at six schools with 16 different routes and 145 kids," Thomas said.

Sayers said programs such as these inspire his research.

"I'm an optimist," Sayers said. "I like to think that if (we) build these kind of things, we're going to improve the health of our community. I'd like to see our physical activity levels increase. If you increase your physical activity, you will improve your health. If we can improve physical activity in the community, we are going to improve overall health."

Sayers will check in with his original subjects in 2009 to monitor physical activity levels again. Right now, though, his team is taking the first steps in asking if the trail network has affected public health.

Once they have the information, Sayers said he will lobby for continued funding and to spread similar programs to other communities.

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