By Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org
We’ve always known walking is good for us—it burns calories, reduces stress and helps the environment.
But we never knew how really great it is for us until the just released Call to Action on Walking from US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, who explains, “An average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity—such as brisk walking—can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”
Surgeon General Murthy announced a national campaign to encourage Americans to walk more and make all communities safer and easier for walking. His office will partner with schools, citizens groups and businesses to meet these goals.
“Walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy adds. “That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities.”
Walk Score Maps
Does your community make it easy for people to walk? Are some areas better for walking than others? Maps like these paint a visual picture of what communities have achieved and where improvements still need to be made.
The landmark report—which is being compared to the Surgeon General’s 1964 warning on the dangers of smoking—is based on definitive medical evidence that moderate physical exercise boosts your health cuts your chances of diabetes, dementia, depression, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and high blood pressure by 40 percent or more.
A major study released this year shows that lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, according to Cambridge University researchers who studied more than 300,000 people over 12 years. Their findings match another comprehensive study that found sitting for long periods is linked to higher death rates.
This explains why the Surgeon General and a growing chorus of health care experts are singing the praises of walking.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) recommends Americans walk at least 30 minutes a day five days a week—or bike, run, swim, dance, garden do aerobics and play sports. (For kids, it’s 60 minutes a day seven days a week.) Taking a walk is the exercise that people stick with most over time, according to the American Heart Association.
“Walking is like medicine for my patients. If walking was a pill or surgical procedure,” it would be all over the news, says Dr. Bob Sallis , a family practitioner in Fontana, California.
“You don’t have to be an athlete to be physically active, just walk, walk, walk!” says the Bernard J. Tyson, president of Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s largest health care providers that powers the Every Body Walk! Collaborative (involving more than a hundred other organizations from the National PTA to AARP to the National Association of Realtors) to get more Americans walking.
Walking stands out as Americans’ favorite aerobic activity because it’s free, easy, available anywhere—and, most of all—it’s fun. Six in ten Americans take a walk at least once a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the number of Americans walking has risen six percent since 2005. That adds up to 20 million more people on their feet.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that eleven percent of the nation’s trips are now made by walking. That rises to 28 percent for all trips under one mile, including 35 percent to work, 40 percent to shopping and 46 percent to religious services.
Good For Your Health—But Also For Your Pocketbook and the Local Economy
The rising tide of walkers across America brings us other benefits too.
Lower health care costs. Physical inactivity costs Americans an estimated $177 billion a year for medical costs, and accounts for 16 percent of all deaths, according to the American Public Health Association.
More social connections: Strong social connections improve both our physical and mental health, and walking is one of the best ways to meet neighbors and deepen ties with friends.
Stronger communities: “Exercise is medicine. It’s also good for the social fabric of our communities,” says former Dr. Regina Benjamin, US Surgeon General from 2009 to 2013, explaining why she added a walking path to the grounds of her health clinic in rural Alabama. “Health does not just happen in doctors’ offices and clinics—it happens where we work, live, play and pray,” she says.
“What makes people walk is what makes great places to live,” adds Harriet Tregoning, head of the Office of Community Planning at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). “Walkability is the secret sauce that improves the performance of many other things ” in our communities.
Improved school performance. Walking to school boosts “cognitive performance” in students, according to Mary Pat King, the National PTA’s Director of Programs and Projects. Dr. Richard Jackson, a pediatrician and former Environmental Health Director at the US Centers for Disease Control finds that walking to school is good for children’s learning ability, concentration, moods and creativity.
Improved creativity and reduced anxiety: Eighty five percent of Americans believe that walking helps reduce anxiety and feelings of depression, and two-thirds of Americans report that walking “stimulates their thinking” according to a national survey.
Putting one foot in front of the other is intrinsically tied to our minds as well as our bodies. “To solve a problem, walk around,” advised St. Jerome in the 4th Century. Fifteen hundred years later, Henry David Thoreau agreed: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” The Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh observes, “Every time we take a step on this Earth, we can appreciate the solid ground underneath us.” The Bible counsels, “ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” [Jeremiah 6:16]
A stronger economy: “Walking is a business issue. A healthy workforce means a more successful workforce,” says Karen Marlo vice-president of the National Business Group on Health, a consortium of leading companies across many fields. Indeed, communities with many walkable neighborhoods do better economically than those with just a few, according to a report from the George Washington University School of Business.
Lower cost of living: Transportation costs rival housing costs for many American families today, especially those living in places where it is hard get around without a car (25 percent of household expenses) compared to walkable communities (9 percent), according to the Federal Highway Administration. The yearly costs of a owning and operating a car at $8698, which means that figuring out how to walk more and drive less makes economic sense, according to the American Automobile Association
Higher quality of life: Walk with a Doc, a group of more than 200 doctors in 29 states, documents 100 “Benefits of Walking”, including many medical advantages but also increased physical energy, clearer skin, improved athletic performance, reduced anger, increased self-control, longer lives and a greater sense of well-being.
Getting America Back on Its Feet
In light of all this evidence, it’s clear that walking is a healthy, economical, sociable, pleasurable thing to do. Yet less than half of us meet the CDC’s weekly minimum for walking or any other physical activity–30 minutes a day five days a week.
Americans walk less than people in most other countries. In fact, Australians walk almost twice as many steps each day as we do, a surprise in a country that is similar to the US with high rates of car ownership and spread-out suburban development.
While ninety four percent of Americans participating in a national survey said that walking is “good for their health,” 79 percent admitted they “should walk more.”
So what’s stopping them?
- 40 percent of people said their “neighborhood is not very walkable”
- 40 percent said there are “few places within walking distance of my home”
- 39 percent said “they don’t have time”
- 25 percent cited a “lack of sidewalks or speeding traffic”
- 25 percent cited “no one to walk with”
- 13 percent cited “crime in my neighborhood”
“Everyone deserves to have a safe place to walk or wheelchair roll,” Surgeon General Murthy . “But in too many of our communities, that is not the reality.”
To get Americans back on their feet —to enjoy better health and other rewards— we need to make strolling and striding a natural part of daily life again. This can be accomplished by removing the personal and physical barriers that discourage us from walking for recreation, relaxation, and transportation.
Most Americans support significant changes in our communities to promote this goal, according to the survey sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. Eighty percent “want to design streets to make walking safer” (even if it means driving slower); 71 percent “want better enforcement of speed limits” (even if it means driving slower), and 54 percent “want communities where destinations are within walk distance” (even if it means building homes closer together).
These steps are popular because they are not some radical upheaval of our way of life, but a common-sense readjustment. Walking has always been one of the most elemental human acts, central to our lives the same as breathing, eating and sleeping. Making streets and neighborhoods more safe, convenient, comfortable and interesting for people traveling on foot (or rolling in wheelchairs) is a sensible return to traditional values. It not only enhance our health, but enriches our lives by better connecting us to people and places in our communities.
Jay Walljasper is a writer, speaker and consultant on making our communities great places for everyone and author of the Great Neighborhood Book. He is the Urban Writer in Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and a Senior Fellow at Project for Public Spaces. Contact him at JayWalljasper.com.
photo credit: Ted Eytan