Fighting Flab in the 'Burbs

Suburbs can get a pretty bad rap these days—ever lengthening commutes and fewer designated routes for bikers and walkers don't exactly lend themselves to healthy lifestyles. A 2003 study that found suburbanites to be an average of six pounds heavier than their urban counterparts didn't help the image of the 'burbs as being less than conducive to fitness. But the suburbs offer some surprising ways to stay fit. Here are four ways to think outside of the city when it comes to health and wellness. (And if you're a city dweller take a look at our guide to urban fitness.)

1. Stairways to Heaven
City streets offer a chance to stretch your legs, but suburban houses and malls have their own form of hidden exercise: stairs. In an hour of stair climbing you will more than double the number of calories you burn walking. But it turns out that not many 'burbanites are taking advantage of this exercise advantage: a 1998 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that only about 5 percent of mall shoppers chose the stairs over the elevator. That number did jump, however, to 8 percent when they posted signs saying WATCH YOUR WAISTLINE, TAKE THE STAIRS. And that's one mantra you shouldn't leave home without.

2. The Happy Medium
A recent study fromChicago casts some doubt on the theory that most city dwellers are slimmer than suburbanites because they do more walking. The 2006 study looked at the height and weight data on the driver's licenses of about 7 million residents in the Chicago area. They found that the slimmest folks lived in the closest suburbs 10 to 20 minutes outside the city, while the highest body-mass-index scores were actually inside the city. The problem isn't living in the city, researchers say, but poor diet and lack of exercise—conditions that can afflict you wherever you live.

3. The Subway Slowdown
Even though urbanites may live a shorter distance from their offices, their commutes actually tend to take longer, largely because public transportation moves much more slowly than road travel in cars. A study conducted in Europe found that across the board, those in suburbs had commutes that were 5 to 10 minutes shorter than their city-dwelling counterparts. If you put those extra few morning minutes to work—a quick core workout or even a one-mile lap around the neighborhood—the health benefits can add up quickly.

4. Safer Streets
A study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2005 found that "urban households experienced overall property crime at rates higher than those for suburban or rural households." Since many suburban neighborhoods tend to be safer, it leaves open the option of biking or jogging on the streets at times when some urbanites might not be willing to risk it. And not only are the crime rates lower, those who live in places with lower-density populations usually have less traffic to contend with.