A Path to Health and Wellbeing Is Right Under Our Feet
by Jay Walljasper
The next big healthcare breakthrough — which could cut rates of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s by at least 40 percent and save Americans $100 billion a year — comes from a place you’d least expect. On your block. At the park. Everywhere.
So what’s this amazing treatment, which also happens to be easy, enjoyable and virtually free? It’s as simple as taking a walk.
“Walking is like medicine for my patients,” says Dr. Bob Sallis — a Kaiser Permanente family practitioner from Fontana, California—describing the connection between how much time his patients spend walking and their overall health. “If walking was a pill or surgical procedure, it would be on 60 Minutes.”
“Being physically active is one of the most important things people of all ages can do for their health,” explains Joan Dorn of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She notes that walking ranks #1 as Americans’ favorite physical activity, and that doing it for as little as 30 minutes is one way to achieve significant health benefits.
US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin announced that she is preparing a Call to Action on Walking, which is being compared to the famous 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on the dangers of smoking. “Walking is easy,” Dr. Benjamin told a group of health, business, education, and government leaders who came together in Washington, D.C. to advance a national walking movement. “Everyone can do it and it’s fun. We have to make being healthy joyful.”
More than 100 organizations, ranging from the National PTA to the American Lung Association to AARP to NAACP to Nike, were on hand at the meeting. Despite their wide-varying missions, the vast majority of groups agreed on two common goals: 1) Encouraging everyone to walk more; and 2) Boosting policies, practices, and investments that will make communities everywhere more walkable. A national summit to launch a walking movement is now being planned for October 1-3 (see details below).
The benefits of walking don’t stop at health. More people walking leads to safer hometowns, better student performance in school, a stronger sense of neighborliness, increased economic activity at local businesses and improved social equity among all Americans, notes Tyler Norris, Vice President of the large non-profit health care provider Kaiser Permanente.
Our country’s low rate of physical activity compared to other nations is not just laziness. To get Americans back on their feet we need to make movement once again a natural part of daily life. This calls for a close look at how people are either encouraged or discouraged from walking to work, schools, shops, parks and other destinations in our communities.
Lexer Quamie of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights advocates “equal opportunity in mobility,” which eliminates obstacles and dangers that make walking difficult or unsafe for many older, younger and low-income young individuals and people with disabilities. She notes that the pedestrian fatality rate for African Americans and Latinos is almost twice that of whites.
Real estate developer Christopher Leinberger outlines the powerful economic arguments in favor of walking. One-third of all assets in the US today are real estate, he explains, “and there is a huge pent-up demand for walkable urbanism” — a term describing cities, suburbs and small towns with sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities. “All of the growth over the next generation, if we give the market what [people] want, will be walkable urbanism,” states Leinberger, who is also a research professor at the George Washington University School of Business.
Americans already walk more than many people realize, accounting for 11 percent of daily transportation trips nationally according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. “But until now there has not been a unified voice to advocate for improving the built environment to increase walking for transportation, shopping, and leisure,” notes Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks.
Data from the Federal Highway Administration’s 2009 National Household Survey show Americans walk in surprisingly large numbers to work (35 percent), shops (40 percent) and school or church (46 percent) when these places are a mile or less from home.
Six in ten Americans report taking a walk in the past week according to a recent publication from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet 52 percent of us still don’t get the recommended minimum of physical activity: 30 minutes a day five times a week (60 minutes for kids).
But there’s good news: Walking is on the rise. Americans are walking six percent more on average than we did in 2005. Also, young people show a preference for walking. Federal Highway Administration research shows that vehicle miles traveled by drivers under 30 dropped from 21 percent of the total in 1995 to 14 percent by 2009 — an unprecedented 33 percent reduction that marks a cultural shift by the emerging Millennial Generation. And the launch of a new walking movement offers promise for substantially increasing Americans’ physical activity.
A Walking Summit is planned for October 1-3 in Washington, DC (more details soon available at EverybodyWalk.org). Everybody Walk!, which was catalyzed by Kaiser Permanente to get Americans moving and make communities more walkable, has become a collaborative involving many of the more than 100 organizations involved at a December 5 Washington meeting (which was convened by America Walks, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership and Kaiser Permanente.) America Walks, a national coalition of local walking advocacy groups, serves as the collaborative’s coordinator. For more information see EverybodyWalk or contact: [email protected].
Jay Walljasper is co-editor of On the Commons, and is the author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010). He is a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. His website is: www.JayWalljasper.com. This article is adapted from the booklet Walking Revolution.