Health seems our most valuable asset these days. Do I feel a tickle in my throat there? Does my daughter not feel a bit warm now? Half of my kitchen table was promoted to a work desk for the last two months. My life will took place within these few square meters, it seems. However, the day after the announcement of our national quarantine, the doctors called on us to keep moving. Staying in our room shouldn’t make the lack of exercise worse, these doctors said. After all, sitting still is the new smoking. Children should play for 1 hour a day and adults should exercise 150 minutes a week. If you just wash your hands, eat healthy and exercise enough, we seem to take care of our own health. But what if we can’t make those choices? We can only encourage our children to play outside if there is a safe playground or neighborhood park nearby. We can only walk or cycle nearby if there are safe and comfortable routes. In other words, health does not only depend on ourselves, but also on our spatial environment. If our city is more exercise-friendly, it will be easier to live a healthy life.

Commissioned by the city of Antwerp, a study team, including my research group, recently carried out a so-called “motion scan” in five districts. We looked at how exercise-friendly the public space is for children, seniors and youngsters. We cycled and walked with residents and other interested parties through the neighborhoods, drew and worked with them and encouraged them to think of which safe places and pleasant routes the districts could still use to stimulate exercise and sports. One of the most important lessons that we learned is that we also have to learn to design our public space in a movement-friendly manner for the youngest and oldest among us. For example, we came up with ‘rolling routes’: short walking loops around residential care centers or connections to local facilities and public transport stops. Obstacle-free sidewalks, therefore, accessible with the walker, wheelchair and stroller. Sufficient benches, alternating in the sun and sheltered from wind and weather, with the next bench always in sight; enough crossing time at the traffic lights, … They seem like details, but they can make the difference whether our elderly people can still go to the pharmacy or their friends independently. With “children’s routes” we proposed to give space to the little ones. Children can move independently along these routes and on the way to or from school they will find colorful playground equipment, art installations and murals. In short, mobility is much more than just moving. I fervently hope that we can soon give the known motto of the Roman poet Juvenalis – ‘mens sana in corporo sano’ – an Antwerp update: a healthy mind and a healthy body in the most exercise-friendly city!

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