The event was followed by an evening forum, which featured a question-and-answer period about Active Living by Design, a recent outreach of the University's School of Public Health.
The initiative received $16.5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund its nationwide efforts.
Director Rich Killingsworth said the program aims to create active lifestyles through changes in transportation, architecture and public policy instead of simply promoting physical fitness.
"Active living is different from exercise because people often lack the time and motivation to actually schedule physical activity," he said. "Our project will subtly increase physical activity in people's daily routines."
The School of Public Health is the third program to be funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest philanthropic group devoted solely to health and health care. But it is the only initiative that will create "active living" throughout the country, Killingsworth said.
In November, the program will begin accepting nominations for 25 grants to implement changes in community infrastructure and development.
For example, architects can plan easier access to stairwells to reduce elevator use, he said. City planners can create accessible neighborhood parks and help devise safe routes to neighborhood schools.
Killingsworth added that such measures will increase physical activity among children, as well as instill a sense of awareness that cannot be gained through a car window. "Walking to school lets kids see what's good and what's bad in their neighborhoods," he said. "This experience will prove useful in wise decision making."
Reid Ewing, who spoke at Monday's symposium, works at the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, where he studies the relationship between built environments and health.
He said that though people are aware of the connection between limited physical activity, obesity and chronic illness, there is little testing on how urban planning can affect the process.
Ewing emphasized the strong relationship between population density and such issues as affordable housing, racial segregation and the cost of public services.
Despite the different interests and methodologies of public health and city development, Ewing said he thinks researchers can work together to create a better living environment.
Similar hope was expressed by Kelly Evenson, a research assistant professor at UNC's Department of Epidemiology. She said the combined efforts of these fields might reverse increasing levels of obesity, which have doubled in North Carolina since 1987.
In fact, she said she sees little benefit in encouraging increased exercise without making changes in community infrastructure.
"It might be unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when their environment actually discourages such activity."
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