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Walking as a Way of Life

December 13, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Jay Walljasper

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A New Movement for Health and Happiness

by Jay Walljasper

Researchers have discovered a “wonder drug” for many of today’s most common medical problems, says Dr. Bob Sallis, a family practitioner at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Fontana, California. It’s been proven to help treat or prevent diabetes, depression, breast and colon cancer, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety and osteoporosis, Sallis told leaders at the 2013 Walking Summit in Washington, D.C.

“The drug is called walking,” Sallis announced. “Its generic name is physical activity.” Recommended dosage is 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but children should double that to 60 minutes a day, seven days a week. Side effects may include weight loss, improved mood, improved sleep and bowel habits, stronger muscles and bones as well as looking and feeling better.

Biking, swimming, dancing, gardening, sports, jogging and aerobics work equally well, Sallis said, but he cites three factors that make walking the most effective treatment: 1) Low or no cost; 2) Simple to do for people of all ages, incomes and fitness levels, and 3) Walking is Americans’ favorite physical activity, so you are more likely to stick with a walking program than with other fitness prescriptions.

Sallis urges all physicians to prescribe walking for their patients because “physical inactivity is pandemic today,” as the authoritative British medical journal The Lancet reported last year in a special issue devoted to the benefits of physical activity. Studies published in other leading medical journals show that walking and other physical activity could cut rates of many of these diseases by at least 40 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This would save Americans more than $100 billion a year in health care costs, according to the American Public Health Association.

Nice Surprise:  Walking Is Good for Us in Many Ways

Increased levels of walking and physical activity can bring other social benefits too, said authorities from the fields of public health, education, community development, and social policy at the national Walking Summit held October 1–3.

Vital CommunitiesDr. Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General from 2009-2013, said, “You know that exercise is medicine. It’s also good for the social fabric of our communities.” That’s the reason Benjamin built a walking path on the grounds of a health clinic she founded in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.

Lower Health Care CostsGeorge Halvorson, chairman of Kaiser Permanente, declared, “The only way we can overcome the chronic disease epidemic is to walk,” which will also save billions in health care costs and sustain Medicare for the future. Halvorson noted that diabetes type 2 alone accounts for 34 percent of Medicare costs. Kaiser Permanente, which serves 9.1 million members across the U.S., has made physical activity a vital sign that health care professionals should chart and act on along with a patient’s weight, family health, and blood pressure.

Improved School PerformanceMary Pat King, director of Programs and Projects for the National PTA, reported that walking to school “supports cognitive performance” in students, which is why the organization passed a resolution pushing for more walkable schools.

Stronger EconomyKaren Marlo, vice-president of the National Business Group on Health, an alliance of leading companies, explained, “Walking is a business issue. A healthy workforce means a more successful workforce. It’s important for businesses to share effective ways to get employees to walk more.”

Better NeighborhoodsHarriet Tregoning, director of the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning, said, “What makes people walk is what makes great places to live. Walkability is the secret sauce that improves the performance of many other things.”

All these examples show why people from different sectors with different missions embrace walking as a solution, explained Tyler Norris, co-chair of Every Body Walk! and Kaiser Permanente vice president. “Police care about walking because it’s good for public safety. Developers are here because walking promotes successful economic development. Environmentalists are here because walking reduces carbon emissions.”

Birth of a Movement

The summit was convened by Kaiser Permanente and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which includes more than 100 business, government and nonprofit partners. The audience included more than 400 participants from 41 states and Canada representing 235 organizations from AARP, NAACP and the PGA Tour to Marriott Inc., the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Health Department and Bike Walk Greenville (South Carolina).

The 2013 Walking Summit focused on how to encourage more Americans to walk, and how to make communities across the country more walkable. Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a coalition of 470 organizations nationwide, joked that the ultimate goal was to make “sitting the new smoking.” His ambitious vision for 2020 is that all Americans walk enough each day to enjoy health benefits and that all communities provide a safe, comfortable environment for people to walk.

Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of Girl Trek, which organizes walking groups for African-American women and girls to “improve their health and heal their communities,” opened the summit by announcing, “Neighbor, we’ve got work to do!” Garrison emphasized that walking is not just for folks “in Portland and Boston,” a theme that echoed during the three-day event. Walking is for everyone — no matter if you live in an inner city neighborhood or a suburb without sidewalks or a rural community, no matter whether you are out of shape or a youngster or roll in a wheelchair.

Garrison emphasized that walking should be a natural part of our daily lives, rather than something we add on specifically for exercise, health or recreation. “I have the pleasure of walking every day to the store, the dry cleaners, the post office, to the park with my husband. That’s no accident,” she said. It’s the result of deliberate urban planning that locates important destinations within walking distance —a traditional common-sense idea called walkability, which is at the heart of making our communities more safe, comfortable and convenient for walking.

“Walkable communities are the key to a strong American Third Century,” observed Tyler Norris. “They help protect us from spiraling health care costs in great part driven by preventable chronic disease, while creating vibrant communities that are fonts of equitable prosperity.”

Real estate developer Christopher Leinberger of LOCUS outline how the rise of walkability is good for our economic future. Every point over 70 on Walk Score (the website rating the walkability of any address in America) results in increased rent of 90 cents per square foot for commercial property and a rise in home values of $20 per square foot for residential property.

An unintended consequence of this trend might be a decline in social equity in walkable neighborhoods as housing becomes more expensive for low-income people. Yolanda Savage-Narva, campaign director of America Walks, laid out one of the key goals for the walking movement at a debriefing session after the summit: “Everyone has an inherent right to walk.”

The first event of its kind, the 2013 Walking Summit was sold out more than a month in advance. “The enthusiasm, energy and excitement for promoting walking and walkability here is contagious,” noted Deb Hubsmith, founder and director of the Safe Routes to Schools  Partnership. “This is a movement being born.”

Next Steps for the Walking Movement

1) What we can all do together

Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking: In spring 2014, the proposed Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking will offer the movement a prime time opportunity to encourage more Americans to walk, just as the 1964 Surgeon General’s report discouraged millions from smoking.

Organize Local and Regional Walking SummitsLocal communities are the legs of the movement, so regional gatherings to share best practices and broaden awareness are an important next step.

Hold Another National Walking SummitFollow up on the energy and buzz of this summit with another where people can meet colleagues from across the country, brainstorm and influence national policy — to be held perhaps in two years.

Take a Look at Best Practices from Other CountriesUnfortunately, the U.S. ranks near the bottom of nations when it comes to walking. Australians — who share our fondness for car ownership and suburban living — walk almost twice as many steps a day as Americans. Why?

2) What you and other local walking advocates can do

Identify and Boost the Efforts of Walk ChampionsGrassroots leaders are already promoting walking in every town — the parents who organize walk-to-school groups, the retiree who gets his neighbors out for a stroll, the office worker who encourages her colleagues to walk at lunchtime. Help these unsung heroes get your community back on its feet.

Engage Young PeopleShowing kids how to walk safely in their community should be part of grade school curriculum, and walking advocacy groups should invite the involvement of teenagers. Indeed, three California high school students traveled to the D.C. summit to talk about how important walking is to their lives.

Establish Indoor Walking CoursesWhen rain, snow, cold or heat hit, make sure people can walk indoors at a designated location like a community center, school, mall or big-box store.

Keep Streets CleanThe perception that streets are not safe for walking is as much a deterrent as actual dangers. Eliminating litter, graffiti and other unsightly surroundings will boost pedestrian activity, says Wendy Landman of Walk Boston.

3) What you can do

Walk or Roll 30 Minutes a DayIn the morning. On lunch breaks. After dinner. With your dog. With your kids. With friends or neighbors. Do errands on foot.

Take the Walking PledgeCommit yourself to walking by signing the pledge at, which is also a great source of information and encouragement. Don’t miss the two-minute West Wing Reunion video, where the cast reunites in the White House for a skit about the benefits of walking.

Join the Walking MovementContact [email protected]for more information, including how to meet other walking advocates in your community.

Watch ‘The Walking Revolution’: Every Body Walk! and Kaiser Permanente released Walking Revolution, an inspiring video spelling out the benefits of physical activity and capturing the energy of Americans’ growing interest in walking.

Try a Walking Meeting or Standing Phone Call: Eighty percent of Americans work at jobs that require little or no physical activity. Suggest a walking meeting to add some health-enhancing movement to the workday. Take phone calls standing up or walking around your desk.

Don’t Just Talk About WalkingJonah Berger, a bestselling author about how new ideas catch on, noted that the vast majority of people will think of “jelly” every time “peanut butter” is mentioned. He challenged summit participants to come up with walking movement’s versions of peanut butter: Better health and walking, great neighborhoods and walking, good friends and walking…

{Excerpted from the booklet Walking As a Way of Life: Movement for Health & Happiness.}

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). His new book, How to Design Our World for Happiness, is now available online. Walljasper 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:

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