04/23/13

A Walking Revolution: A Practical Way to Make Americans Happier and Healthier is Right Under our FeetA Walking Revolution: A Practical Way to Make Americans Happier and Healthier is Right Under our Feet

By Jay Walljasper, guest blogger

Editor's Note: US Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin has proposed a Call to Action on Walking. This is a significant step by the Public Health Service and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and would be only the seventh call to action in the past ten years. It's a strong sign that the Surgeon General means business about the public health urgency of preventable disease and the value of walking as a preventive measure. At BWTC, we know that more walking can and will happen where there are walkable streets and safe intersections. Our experience also tells us that connecting health and transportation is definitely win-win territory. As a recent report from the American Public Health Association and Safe Routes to School National Partnership indicates, active transportation "is one of the few intervention points with the potential to transform individual health, community health, and environmental conditions all at the same time." The local story is promising. BWTC count data show extremely resilient walking activity across all seasons. Walking rose 23.5 percent between 2007 and 2012 in our grant area, increasing steadily year over year! BWTC has already responded to the Surgeon General's proposed Call to Action on Walking by entering into the record some of these findings from our count data. Everyone can participate: sign on to take the pledge to walk more or offer comment that will inform and help to shape the overall response from the Office of the Surgeon General. And read Jay Walljasper's guest blog below for more on the national story on walking and walkability.

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.

Attuned to these health benefits, US Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin recently announced the launch of the Every Body Walk! campaign to get Americans moving and make communities more walkable. This follows Benjamin's proposed 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, DC, this winter 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, which was convened by America Walks, the American College of Sports Medicine, the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and Kaiser Permanente. 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.

Text Box: If folks on foot want to be part of a critical mass just about any day in the Twin Cities, they can join the greatest number of pedestrians at locations around the University of Minnesota-especially at 15th Ave SE north of University Ave. SE, where BWTC recorded 2,050 people walking during our two-hour counts in Sept. 2012. That's 13,038 pedestrians daily!

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 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 US 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 6 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.

In conjunction with the Every Body Walk! campaign, a National Walking Summit is planned for October 1-3 in Washington, DC. For more information, see EveryBodyWalk.org or contact info@AmericaWalks.org

Adapted from the booklet Walking Revolution. Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker about how to make our communities more livable, sustainable, prosperous, and lively.