As life grows ever more challenging, with concerns about health and the future nagging at us, one solution can be as simple as taking a walk.
That’s the reassuring news from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who last year declared “physical activity is one of the best things Americans can do to improve their health and walking is an easy way to get moving” in his landmark Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. He added that the benefits go beyond health. “It brings business districts to life and can help reduce air pollution.”
Noting that one out of two American adults suffers from a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease and that walking reduces the risk of these conditions, Murthy initiated the Step It Up campaign to help Americans of all ages, races, income, regions and ability levels to walk more.
Murthy explained why he focuses on walking among many other forms of physical activity:
•It is already Americans’ favorite form of aerobic exercise.
•It is free.
•It does not require special skills, facilities or equipment.
•It can be done year-round, outdoors or indoors.
•People with disabilities can “walk” by rolling in wheelchairs.
•For busy people, a walk can often do double duty as transportation or social time with friends.
“Many of us live in neighborhoods that can present barriers to walking,” he acknowledged. “There may be no sidewalks; or there may be concerns about safety.”
“Physical activity should not be the privilege of the few,” Surgeon General Murthy added. “It should be the right of everyone.”
Signs of Progress and Advocacy Tools for Walking
Millions of Americans are now discovering that walking is good for our health, our social lives, our communities, our economic prospects and our overall happiness. Here are some of the recent signs:
1. A miracle drug. A September cover story on “The Exercise Cure” in Time magazine cited brisk walking, and even walking the dog, as the sort of “moderate intensity” workout that “works like a miracle drug”.
2. Walkable streets benefit everyone. Fast Company — a magazine renown for staying ahead of the curve on business trends — offered “50 Reasons Why Everyone Should Want More Walkable Streets.” Among their findings: “4) It makes people happier…...8) It makes neighborhoods more vital… …16) It boosts the economy…18) It makes people more creative and productive….”
3. More feet on the street. The number of Americans reporting they walk more now increased 14 percent in a 2012 USDOT survey of pedestrian behavior, compared to a 2002 survey. This corroborates numerous local pedestrian counts documenting a rise in walking for transportation, recreation and exercise. Meanwhile the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to a six percent increase in the number of Americans walking between 2005 and 2010 (latest figures available). That adds up to 20 million more people on their feet.
4. The path to prosperity and social equity. The most walkable metropolitan areas in the US are also the most prosperous, with lower levels of social inequity than auto-dependent areas, says a new study by the George Washington University School of Business. Low-income people in walkable neighborhoods spend more on housing but benefit even more from lower transportation costs and better access to jobs.
5. Lack of exercise almost as deadly as smoking. A groundbreaking study conducted over 50 years shows low levels of physical activity are more lethal than high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other closely-watched medical conditions. These findings affirm an earlier Cambridge University study showing that lack of exercise increased the risk of death twice as much as obesity.
6. Booming real estate trend. Eighty five percent of Americans report that living near places to walk was important to them, according to the National Association of Realtors’ latest Community Preference and Transportation Survey. This is even more true for Millennials, who favor walking as transportation over driving by 12 percentage points.
7. Feel better — and better about yourself. Communities good for walking enjoy lower obesity, lower diabetes, and more people who feel good about their appearance, according to new data from the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index.
8. Movement toward stopping climate change. Walking is incorporated into more than half of the recommendations in 50 Steps Toward Carbon-Free Transportation, a detailed report released in October by the Frontier Group. “America’s transportation system has emerged as Climate Enemy #1, with cars, trucks and other vehicles now representing the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution,” states the report.
9. Driverless cars can create pedestrian-filled streets. Many believe autonomous vehicles will transform modern life by turning huge tracts of land now used for parking into sidewalks, bikeways and public space. This will encourage people to walk more, using driverless cars primarily for longer or more complicated trips.
10. Walking means business. Firms in highly competitive fields like technology and marketing have discovered that top talent, especially young people, want to work and live in places a short walk from cafes and cultural attractions, says walking consultant Mark Fenton. Thomas Schmid of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adds that businesses also want to be in healthier, walkable communities because it decreases their health care premiums. He points to Chattanooga, where Volkswagen built a new plant, in part, because they were promised that a popular walk-bike trial would be extended to their campus
11. Walking means local business. Foot traffic is the lifeblood of most business districts, and improvements that make walking easier and safer pay off economically. A street in West Palm Beach, Florida plagued by speeding traffic was make more walk-friendly, resulting in less crime and $300 million in new private investment.
12. U.S. Department of Transportation champions safe streets. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, launched Safer People, Safer Streets “to help communities create safer, better connected bicycling and walking networks” in response to a steady rise since 2009 in pedestrians killed by motorists.
13. Federal Highway Administration pushes 80 percent cut in pedestrian deaths by 2031. An 80-percent reduction in all pedestrian deaths and serious injuries over the next 15 years is the new goal of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA in the agency’s recent Strategic Agenda for Pedestrian and Bicycle Transportation. On top of that, the agency is pushing to double the number of short trips (1 mile for pedestrians; 5 miles for bicyclists) taken by Americans by 2025.
14. Vision Zero movement hits the streets. Eighteen cities from Fort Lauderdale to Anchorage have formally pledged themselves to the Vision Zero goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities (foot, bike, car), according to the just-launched Vision Zero Network. Seventeen more are exploring the idea The movement is inspired by Sweden’s success in reducing road fatalities by 50 percent since 2000, thanks to improved street design and stepped up enforcement of speed limits. “We know that speed is the most critical factor in the severity of a traffic injury,” says Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network. “That means we must bring speeds down to safe levels.”
15. A growing movement to get us back on our feet. A wide coalition of advocates devoted to better health, social justice, a greener future and community vitality is spreading the word that walking is good for us and our communities. More than 500 people from 44 states participated in the 2015 National Walking Summit in Washington, DC, 30 percent higher attendance than the first Summit in 2013. The 2017 Summit is September 13-15 in St. Paul, MN, which will be hosted by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, and sponsored by the Kaiser Permanente health care system.
16. America’s walking renaissance. This new book showcases success stories from communities all over the country where walking is picking up speed, and offers practical tips on how you and your town can walk more. Here’s a free PDF download.
17. A college for walking. Fifty activists from across the US are applying lessons learned at the Walking College to improve health, equity and economic prospects in their hometowns. To apply for the Class of 2017 contact Ian Thomas, the Columbia, MO city council member who heads the college.
18. The case for healthy places. “Your zip code is an important factor to your health,” explains Tyler Norris, Kaiser Permanente Vice President for Total Health Partnerships, announcing a new report. documenting about how to make places healthier. Produced by Project for Public Spaces, “The Case for Healthy Places” will appear later this year and focuses on these key areas: 1) opportunities for social connection and support; 2) opportunities for play & active recreation; 3) access to green & natural places; 4) access to healthy food & beverages; 5) access to walking & biking; and 6) actions for healthcare institutions.
19. Walk audits: A tool to make better Streets. Blue Zone’s Walkable communities guru Dan Burden invented walk audits while he was Florida’s Bike and Pedestrian coordinator to help everyday people improve their communities. Here’s his list of five key things that make streets great places to walk:
• Transparency—how appealing buildings and landscapes are to us on the street level;
• Enclosure —trees, benches, street parking and other elements that buffer us from moving vehicles;
• Complexity—many layers of things to see while strolling down a street;
• Imageability—unique features of a place that make it memorable;
• Human-scale—a place designed for people, not just cars.
20. First step toward reuniting a divided nation. The recent election spotlights how fractured America has become. Thankfully, walking offers a first step toward reconnecting to one another. Sidewalks, streets, trails and other public spaces we travel on foot are common ground—literally. They are among the few places where Americans of all backgrounds come together face-to-face, giving us the chance to smile, wave, talk, share and get to know someone different than ourselves. It is much harder to fear, hate, dismiss or ignore people you cross paths with every day.
Photo credit Dan Burden/Blue Zones
Jay Walljasper writes regularly about public health and healthy communities. The former editor of Utne Reader, he is author of The Great Neighborhood Book. His website is JayWalljasper.com. Read all of Jay’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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