Everyone knows walking is good for you.
It’s plain common sense, backed by a wealth of recent medical research. In fact, a major new study found that lack of physical activity is twice as deadly for us as obesity.
Health data shows that as little as 30 minutes of walking a day cuts the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease in half, lowers the likelihood of diabetes by 60 percent,
limits colon cancer by 31 percent for women and reduces risk of dementia, heart disease, depression, osteoporosis, glaucoma and catching a cold.
This kind of evidence prompted US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to issue a call for Americans to walk more. “Physical activity — such as brisk walking — can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Murthy explains. “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.”
“Walking is the most common form of physical activity across incomes and ages and education levels,” adds Thomas Schmid of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s because it’s free, easy, relaxing, available right out your front door and easily incorporated into daily schedules. Plus it’s fun. The CDC’s most recent research shows the number of Americans who take a walk at least once a week rose six percent in the last decade.
Walking for as little as thirty minutes a day is enough exercise to make a difference in adults' health.
Still less than half of all adults meet the minimum recommended guidelines for walking, rolling in a wheelchair or other physical activity (30 minutes a day five days a week), according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even worse, only a quarter of high school students today reach the mark (an hour a day seven days a week), according to the Surgeon General’s report.
What can be done to ensure the health of our country? The Surgeon General encourages everyone to walk and work to make their hometowns more safe and inviting for people on foot. He lauds the new walking movement that’s emerged over the past few years for getting Americans moving again.
Health care professionals are on the frontlines of this effort, and many are bringing the message back to their clinics by including physical activity as one of the vital signs — like blood pressure and tobacco use — they check on with patients. Some MDs even write prescriptions for walking. Several health care systems track physical activity in their health care records, including Greenville Health in South Carolina, Intermountain Healthcare in Utah and Idaho, and Kaiser Permanente, an integrated health care delivery system, in California and seven other states.
If Walking Were A New Drug, It Would Make Headlines
“What if there was a pill you took one day that lowered your blood pressure, prevented diabetes, improved your mood and protected against depression, increased bone density and prevented fractures, helped you remain independent as an older adult, enhanced your ability to think, and gave you more energy?” ask Dr. Robert Sallis and Dr. Karen J. Coleman in Sports Medicine Bulletin.
“Would you be asking your doctor to prescribe it for you?”
Such a drug already exists, Sallis notes, it’s called walking. “If walking was a pill or surgical procedure, it would be on 60 Minutes.”
Sallis, a family practitioner at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Fontana, California, keeps special walking RX prescription pads in his exam rooms, which he fills out for some patients saying, “This is what I want you to do to treat your high blood pressure or depression or diabetes etc. If it’s not enough, then we will consider using a medication.”
What are patients’ reactions? “They respond very well to this message,” Sallis says. “This approach really frames for them how important exercise is to their health and treating their disease.”
Sallis first spoke up about walking and other physical activity being recognized as a vital sign in 2007, when serving as president of the American College of Sports Medicine and helping launch the Exercise is Medicine initiative with the American Medical Association. The aim of that project is to highlight the mounting research proving that physical activity should be seen as essential to health and the treatment of disease. It’s obvious that doctors, nurses and other clinicians should raise the idea of walking during medical exams, when people are paying particularly close attention to their health and how to maintain it.
Putting the Plan Into Action
In 2009, physical activity was designated as a vital sign for Kaiser Permanente facilities in Southern California and the idea was quickly adopted throughout the rest of the non-profit organization — the nation’s largest integrated care health system with 10.2 million members, seventeen thousand physicians, fifty thousand nurses, 620 clinics and 38 medical centers on the West Coast, the Mid-Atlantic region, Colorado, Hawaii, and Georgia.
Patients are asked how many days a week on average they engage in moderate or strenuous physical exercise, like a brisk walk, and for how many minutes? These two simple questions frequently spark conversation about the value of walking (or yoga, Zumba classes, bicycling, gardening and other physical activity) in treating and preventing disease.
A follow-up study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that 18 months after Kaiser Permanente adopted physical activity as a vital sign in Southern California, 86 percent of all adult patients had a record of their activity levels included in electronic medical records. In 2013, Kaiser Permanente’s Exercise as a Vital Sign program was honored with an Innovation Award by the National Business Coalition on Health.
“Asking an individual about their daily physical activity helps our providers learn what matters to our patients and prompts our patients to think about healthier habits,” explains Lisa Schilling, vice president for Healthcare Performance Improvement with Kaiser Permanente's Care Management Institute. “It also allows us to connect the individual to resources and habits that promote better health.”
While going to the gym can seem like an imposing task, walking requires no special equipment or facilities.
Even health care professionals sometimes need encouragement to live more healthy. Zendi Solano, a research assistant for Kaiser Permanente in Pasadena, California, admits that she knew the importance of exercise but “really didn’t take it seriously” until her doctor asked about it during a check up. Diabetes runs in Solano’s family, and she was obese with elevated blood sugar. Right then and there, she decided to take up running. At her next physical, Solano had lost 30 pounds and her blood sugar levels were normal. Being asked about exercise as a vital sign, she says, “is a great reminder.”
About 2/3 of Sallis’s patients fall below the minimum federal guidelines for exercise, and half of those report no moderate physical activity at all during an average week, he says. ‘Talking about physical activity can have an impact on everyone,” he says, especially high risk patients with diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis or other chronic diseases.
“Anyone who is at risk for chronic disease should consider exercise an essential vaccine to greatly lower risk of illness and … extend life,” he wrote in a guest editorial for The British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The power of exercise to heal really hit home for Sallis after meeting Valerie, a 68-year-old patient with Parkinson’s Disease who hobbled into his office with a walker. She was desperate and depressed because her medication was no longer working. He recommended she visit a fitness professional to walk on a treadmill at one mile-per-hour speed along with some resistance training and stretches.
“In a month-and-a half, she came back to my office without the walker, and telling me she had more energy and a more positive outlook,” he remembers. This convinced him, “if something so simple and inexpensive as exercise can have such a profound effect, shouldn’t we try to prescribe this powerful medicine to all of our patients?”
Something You Can Say ‘Yes’ to For Better Health
For Liz Joy, Medical Director for Community Health at Intermountain Healthcare based in Utah, the “a-ha” moment about physical activity as a vital sign came in 2008 at a meeting focused on preventing obesity among youth. “It was a roomful of physicians, health care directors, scientists and coaches,” she remembers, “and one speaker got up and asked: ‘What is health care doing about this crisis?’ That’s when it came to me that physical activity needs to become a vital sign.”
Intermountain adopted the idea in 2013 in its electronic health record for use by clinicians in Utah and Idaho. “It’s a way to bring discussion of physical activity into the exam room,” Joy explains. “Even if it’s just a brief conversation about how important it is to your overall health. I can let patients know it’s as important as blood pressure, and more important than obesity and cholesterol to your overall health.”
“I generally start by talking about walking, because it’s free and everyone knows how to walk,” she adds. “I’ll tell them just start with 10 minutes at a time — and no one has ever said they can’t do that. Do that three times a day, and you have your 30 minute daily minimum.”
Joy notes that doctors have been charting people’s weight for generations, telling them to lose weight while watching the national obesity rate continue to rise. “Talking about physical activity is a positive conversation — something people can do to improve their health. And when they take that first step, sometimes their eating habits begin to change too. You’ve helped enhance their self-efficacy.”
Simple as it is, walking is often overlooked as a source of exercise.
Some of her patients don’t consider walking real exercise, so the conversation can offer new motivation to get back on their feet. “I saw a patient and was surprised his records showed that his physical activity was zero. I knew he had a dog, and I asked if walked the dog? Yes, he said 30-60 minutes a day. But he didn’t think of it as exercise.”
“The physical activity vital sign is a great prompt to have a conversation with patients about activity and exercise — to let them things like gardening and dog walking count,” she adds.
Joy points out that health care systems have a strong incentive for adding physical activity to their lists of vital signs. “Physical activity is stressed in Medicare reimbursements as one of the HEDIS (Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set) measures, which Medicare and others use to assess the quality of health care delivery to determine level of payments. It’s a huge financial driver.”
Spreading the Message into Exam Rooms Everywhere
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has joined with other groups in the walking movement to alert health care professionals about the promise of adding physical activity to their list of vital signs.
“One strategy is to get influential medical organizations to formally adopt physical activity as a vital sign, and then activate their individual members,” says ACSM CEO Jim Whitehead. They’re already working toward that goal with 10 medical societies, including the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Cardiology and the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association.
“This is for all health care providers, not just physicians. Nurses can often make a greater impact because they typically spend more time with you, ” notes Brenda Chamness, ACSM Strategic Health Program’s Senior Director.
Working with Kaiser Permanente and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative — a coalition of organizations ranging from the CDC to AARP to NAACP to the PTA — ACSM hosted a two-day scientific roundtable on the subject last April, which detailed recent research and presented best practices used by working physicians, including Robert Sallis and Liz Joy. In October, several hundred health professionals around the country took part in a webinar on “Making Physical Activity a Vital Sign.”
“All this can have a major impact by showing people that they all don’t have to go to the gym to be healthy,” says Adrian Hutber, Vice President of Exercise is Medicine at ACSM. “They can just go out and take a walk.”
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.
Top photo by Fotolia/Gajus
Middle photo by Fotolia/zhu difeng
Bottom photo by Fotolia/Alextype
Safe spaces to walk are essential for decreasing health disparities among Americans.
“We are a nation of walkers,” declared US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the 2nd National Walking Summit October 29. “Walking is a simple thing we can do” to make America more healthy.
That’s the message of his recent Call to Action on Walking and Walkable Communities, which highlighted the powerful fact that, “an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity — such as brisk walking — can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes” as well as other debilitating chronic diseases.
Dr. Murthy told on overflowing crowd of 500 people from 44 states that, “we need to improve infrastructure in communities to make walking easier.” It’s about justice, he emphasized. It’s about making sure “everyone in America has a good shot at being healthy.”
Equal access to good health was a goal that resounded throughout the Walking Summit in Washington, D.C., organized by America Walks and presented by the Kaiser Permanente integrated health care delivery system, along with two dozen co-sponsors spanning the health care, philanthropy, business, non-profit and transportation fields.
“The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” noted opening keynote speaker Dr. Robert A. Bullard, founder of the Environmental Justice movement and dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.
Jaw-dropping silence seized the room as Bullard showed a succession of US maps illustrating how historic segregation and current poverty strongly correlate with low levels of walking and childhood opportunity as well as high levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. “Health disparities don’t just happen by accident,” he explained. They are the tragic legacy of racism and unequal economic opportunity.
“Tell me your zip code and I can tell you how healthy you are,” Bullard said. “That should not be… All communities should have a right to a safe, sustainable, healthy, just, walkable community.”
Ron Sims, who sponsored some of the first research identifying zip codes as an ironclad determinant of health while chief executive of King County, Washington, closed the three-day event on an equally powerful note. “If you have parks, playgrounds, community gardens, and wide sidewalks, you have good health outcomes,” he offered. “If you have walkable communities kids will do better in school…seniors will be healthier.”
He drew on his experience as an activist in African-American neighborhoods of Seattle, as well as a former Deputy US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to map out the starting point to reach healthy communities: new or improved sidewalks, better lighting, access to water and greenspace. “You have no idea how powerful you are,” he said to the hundreds of walking activists in the room. “I can’t overstate that you are a movement that can ensure this country achieves its great dreams.”
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy works to turn unused railroad lines into walkable trails.
Sims’ optimism is grounded in firm evidence that Americans are getting back on their feet. The number of Americans walking has increased 6 percent since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That adds up to 20 million more people on sidewalks and trails.
Americans are walking not just for health, but also for relaxation, community connection, neighborhood revitalization and the sheer fun of it. The co-chairs of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative —Joan Dorn of the City University of New York School of Medicine and Kevin Mills of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy — outlined some of the reasons for this good news:
• The Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking and Walkable communities generated huge public discussion, including more than six billion media impressions
• The US Department of Transportation is improving life for people who walk or bike with Secretary Anthony Foxx’s Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, which more than 200 cities have joined.
• In recent years, $1.5 billion dollars have gone toward walking and biking improvements, although that’s still less than one percent of overall transportation spending, as Sims noted.
• Vision Zero campaigns — redesigning traffic policies with the goal of no fatalities for walkers, bikers and motorists — have been launched in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, San Jose, Boston and other cities.
• More than 700 towns, counties and states have enacted Complete Streets policies, which consider the needs of all users — not just vehicles — in building and maintaining roads.
• Safe Routes to School programs are ensuring kids can walk or bike to school in virtually every corner of the country.
• On the first day of the Summit, Capitol Hill was swarming with more than 150 walking advocates, who met with 147 Congress members from 33 states, almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
• The Summit attracted more than 520 participants, up 30 percent from the first Summit in 2013 and was more racially and regionally diverse. Nearly a hundred received scholarships to make the event more accessible to people with limited resources. “All of us with divergent missions — from health care to social justice to land trusts to neighborhood revitalization — have a convergent strategy to get more people out walking and create safe places to walk everywhere,” noted Kaiser Permanente vice-president Tyler Norris.
The Summit’s message of walking as a fundamental right drew new attention to groups that suffer the most from unsafe streets for pedestrians in many American communities: people of color, low-income people, older people, children and the disabled.
Statistics that were frequently quoted in workshops and conversations in the corridors included:
• People walking in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed by cars.
• African-Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.
• The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly for people 45 and over, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
• Roughly half of all US kids walked or biked to school in 1970, compared to 16 percent today (up from 13 percent in 2007), according to Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.
Practical solutions to these problems were detailed walking advocates from around the country in 70 breakout sessions focused on specific walking issues.
In the San Joaquin Valley of California, Latina women started walking groups to improve their health and when local officials said it would cost too much to build walking trails, they enlisted their construction-worker husbands to do it. In nearby Ceres, California, sixth-graders did an assessment of walking conditions near their school, which was incorporated into a Safe Routes to Schools masterplan. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, older African-Americans who felt scared to walk because of crime organized neighborhood watch groups to make their community safer. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a graduate student created signs informing people how easy it is to walk to local attractions all on his own, which were later adopted by the city government.
“The Summit shows the movement is expanding from walking as a way to improve public health to walking as a human and civil right, a moral imperative,” said Kate Kraft, National Coalition Director for America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which co-hosted the Summit. “A community that is walkable for everyone means less disenfranchisement and more connection.”
Jay Walljasper — author of The Great Neighborhood Book — consults, writes and speaks about how to create healthy, strong communities. He is Urban Writer in Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and can be reached at Jay Walljasper.
Top photo by Fotolia/Pavlo Vakhrushev
Bottom photo by Fotolia/digitalfarmer
"There’s no crime in wanting to balance your life with a little bit of silence," says Alan Goltl, owner and operator of TankHouse Float and Massage in Wichita, KS. TankHouse offers the experience of "floating" in a sensory deprivation tank, or as Goltl likes to call it, a sensory reduction tank. "I don’t think anybody knows exactly what the significance is [of floating], but it is a healing experience, if anything, because people come out and are baffled by it in a good way."
In the fourth installment of the Abstract Notions podcast, Utne Reader editor Christian Williams and Alan Goltl discuss the history of floating, how to prepare for your first float, and what to expect when you get in the tank. If you are familiar with floating, jump to minute 43 for a discussion with Alan about his experiences with other altered states of consciousness including lucid dreaming, ayahuasca ceremony, and darkness retreats.
Utne Reader editor Christian Williams hosts this podcast that explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality. Read more in the Abstract Notions blog.
People have walked for justice and economic opportunity throughout American history.
Workers wanting a better life for their families walked on picket lines and at protests, rallied by advocates like Cesar Chavez. People demanding civil rights marched in Selma, Alabama and Washington, DC led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Walking is a powerful tool to change the world as well as a fundamental human right. To be restrained from free movement is a denial of our liberties, a betrayal of American ideals.
Yet many disadvantaged people now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, street crime, or a lack of stores and public places within walking distance, which heightens serious problems of poor health, limited transportation options, and overall disillusionment in their communities.
A wealth of recent medical research, highlighted in the Surgeon General’s recent Call to Action on Walking, promotes walking as a way to prevent chronic disease, heart disease, diabetes, depression and some cancers. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone walk or engage in other moderate exercise half an hour a day five days a week. (An hour a day for children.)
Poor conditions for walking among low-income households, people of color and some immigrant communities limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African-Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.
Improving walking options can also help ease the financial burdens on poor families, which spend 42 percent of their income on transportation compared to 22 percent among middle-income Americans. That’s because the average cost of owning and operating one car is $8700 a year.
“This is an issue of equity,” says Gil Peñalosa, founder of 880 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. “A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one.”
Making America more walkable for people of all incomes and races is a major focus of the National Walking Summit, held in Washington, DC Oct. 28-30. Our mission is “to make sure walking is accessible for everyone, especially vulnerable populations in lower socioeconomic communities where infrastructure has not been invested in and pedestrian and public safety are significant issues,” says Tyler Norris, one of the events’ organizers and vice-president of Kaiser Permanente, which is among 20 co-sponsors including AARP, the National Association of Realtors, the Every Body Walk Collaborative, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, the Knight Foundation and America Walks. The summit is organized by America Walks.
Barriers to Walking
So what stops people of color and those living low-income communities from walking more?
There are “disproportionately high pedestrian deaths in low-income communities,” according to US Department of Transportation specialist Paul Heberling. He notes that pedestrians in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed as those in other neighborhoods. African-Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent. This disparity helped spur US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to launch his Safer People, Safer Streets initiative to help everyone walk and bike more.
In addition to traffic injuries, there’s a stigma in low-income communities that people on foot are “losers,” explains Yolanda Savage-Narva, Director of Health Equity at the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials. Growing up in an African-American community in Jackson, MS, Savage-Narva recalls, “In Mississippi, it wasn’t normal to walk. It was something that only really poor people did.”
How you travel looms large as an emotional issue in disadvantaged communities, according to Peñalosa. “Walking is seen as a symbol of failure. And you can see why when you look at the places where many people are forced to walk — deteriorating infrastructure, dangerous intersections. It’s like we are telling these people every day that they are second class citizens.”
Anita Hairston, Associate Director and transportation specialist at Policy Link, a national institute focused on social equity offers another reason straight out of today’s headlines to explain why many African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants are wary about taking a stroll. “The issue of racial profiling is front and center. Who’s got the right to be on the streets? If a group of young black men are dressed casually, people think: Where is this gang going? What are they going to do? Not everyone has the same experience on the street.”
Despite all these roadblocks, people in disadvantaged communities still walk more than other Americans. “The fact is that we have twice as many low-income children who are walking or biking to school than those in affluent neighborhoods, even lacking the infrastructure to protect the children who walk and bicycle,” reports Keith Benjamin, a Campaign Manager for the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.
RX for a Hidden Health Care Crisis
A little publicized crisis for African-Americans is the high rate of heart disease and diabetes, especially among women, says Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of the health empowerment program Girl Trek.
“The leading cause of death for black women is heart disease,” Garrison notes. “We are dying younger and at higher rates from preventable diseases than any group of women in this country. Eighty percent of black women are overweight. Half of all black girls born in 2000 will get diabetes by 2034 if present trends continue.”
Girl Trek aims to improve black women’s health by organizing communities to walk, even in places where sidewalks are absent and crime rates are high. More than 35,000 African-American women have taken Girl Trek’s pledge to re-establish walking as a healing tradition in their neighborhoods. More than 500 Girl Trek members traveled to Alabama last spring to walk in celebration of the Selma-to-Birmingham Civil Rights March.
On Foot in Urban America
Fifteen to 20 women in Anacostia, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., take an invigorating 3.3 mile walk every Saturday morning as part the Just Walk club sponsored by the neighborhood’s Community Wellness Collective. “People here have this idea that exercise is just for people with money, people with time,” public health consultant Khadijah Tribble. “That’s why we walk. To show that’s not true.”
A walking club can be spotted every Thursday evening on the sidewalks of West Humboldt Park, a largely African-American and Latino neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. They’re part of a program to increase walking and improve health sponsored by the West Humboldt Park Development Council (WHPDC).
“This area has one of the higher diabetes rates in the nation,” explains Isaiah Ross, until recently WHPDC’s community development manager. “People haven’t walked much here because the traffic makes it hard to get to school or work, and people are afraid to go out because they don’t know their neighbors.”
The Healthy Community Initiative aims to break down people’s isolation, first by bringing neighbors together and then tackling issues that discourage healthy lifestyles. Groups of 8-10 are being organized to tour their immediate neighborhood conducting walk audits and public safety audits. “Are the crosswalks visible at intersections? Is the lighting good enough?... What can be done to slow down traffic? What’s a safe route for kids to go to school?” are among the questions they seek to answer, according to Ross.
Five new playgrounds have been built recently in the neighborhood and the city of Chicago has begun sponsoring Play Streets events, where a block is closed off to traffic and people of all ages come to hang out and get to know one another.
Stepping Up in Suburbs and the Country
Not all low-income families and people of color live in cities, of course. Suburban residents now outnumber those living in cities among African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans.
More poor people live in suburbs today than in cities, too, and often experience even greater problems because of spotty public transit, lack of sidewalks, wide streets with few pedestrian safety measures and greater walking distances to destinations.
Almost 20 percent of the population of Richmond, a suburban city of 100,000 in the East Bay region of California, live below the poverty line. The city’s struggling Iron Triangle neighborhood—which is approximately 2/3 African-American and 1/3 Latino—has long suffered from poverty and high crime rates, says Dan Burden, a walkability expert at Blue Zones, who has worked in 3000 US communities. Local people seeking to improve their community joined hands to restore Pogo Park, and are now working to make neighborhood routes to the park safe for pedestrians by improving the street design to encourage slow traffic and create a more appealing environment for walking. “This is creating a place filled with lots of things for people to do, where gangs will not go to sell drugs or bully everyone,” Burden says.
In rural America—which is poorer on average than urban regions and where one in five residents is Latino, African-American or Native American—walking is more common than most people think. Even with long distances to destinations and very limited public transit options, 1.6 million rural households do not have access to cars.
Small town residents walk almost as much as Americans living in metropolitan areas, according to a report from Rails to Trails Conservancy. In towns sized 2500-10,000, 7.2 percent of all trips are made on foot and 8.5 percent in towns 10,000 - 50,000, compared to national average of 10.5 percent (and 6.7 percent in newer suburbs), according to the US Department of Transportation.
And rural Americans are enthusiastic about walking. Nine out of ten want to see their communities become more walk-friendly according to a recent survey from the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, and 81 percent want to increase or maintain current public spending on sidewalks and bikeways.
In Winton, a largely Latino town of 10,000 in California’s Central Valley, parents were wary about kids walking or biking to school due to traffic congestion and lack of sidewalks. The school district responded by declaring walk-to-school day, plus hosting events and teaching classes about safety on the streets. Then they drafted their own Safe Routes to Schools policies, with help from the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership and ChangeLab Solutions.
Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker and consultant on making communities better places to live for everyone. Contact him at Jay@JayWalljasper.com.
Photo by Fotolia/connel_design
Photo by Tracey Eller
Empowering the voices of women in the psychedelic renaissance
As one of few women to pioneer the digital revolution, Zoe Helene experienced the frustrations of navigating a male-centric world. As one of few leading female voices in today’s psychedelic renaissance, she’s running up against that imbalance again—and this time, she’s determined to help right it.
“Imbalanced systems are inherently unhealthy, and this work is about wellness,” Helene says. “Sexism is a chronic, systemic problem and has no place in the psychedelic renaissance arena. This is our last chance to evolve ethically, so we’d better get it right.”
Since Helene—an artist, environmental activist and wildlife advocate—began participating in transformational ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon with her husband, ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, she’s found that la medicina moves her life forward in ways that matter. Ayahuasca has reconnected her with her deepest inner wisdom and helped her step up to the plate. “This is not recreational—it is hard but fascinating work with a big payoff,” Helene says.
Helene is concerned because she believes that women are grossly underrepresented in media and in public presentations within the psychedelic and cannabis reform community—“a subculture that aspires to be enlightened.”
“As talented, intelligent, ambitious women, we have dealt with this countless times before,” Helene adds. “As liberated women and as women on the path, we do not wish to step into roles or cultural behaviors that do not feel genuine, positive or healthy—such as aggression, hyper competitiveness, seducing, backstabbing or stepping on others to get to the top—just to be secure a position where we are sought out by the media so that we can be heard and share our work. That’s counter-productive to the work of the medicine.”
Listen to and download a conversation between Zoe Helene and Utne editor Christian Williams in the Abstract Notions podcast:
Through Cosmic Sister, the company Helene founded in 2009 to provide a higher self-selected and connected network and resource for progressive women, she financially supports communicative women so they can experience the healing, consciousness expansion, clarity and inspiration that she found through ayahuasca.
With funding from the Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant, women can participate in authentic, traditional ayahuasca ceremonies at respected retreats and integrate the experience into their lives when they return home. Six women from diverse backgrounds, ranging in age from 26 to 62, have received the grant and returned from the Amazon inspired and ready to fly.
Interest in the grant is soaring, even without promotion, Helene says. “The first Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant was profound and sweet, so I followed my intuition and continued to develop the program,” she adds. “Ayahuasca offers people an opportunity to help themselves. All of the women are thriving, and it’s a privilege to witness these transformational journeys and an honor to play a supportive role.”
A companion project, the Cosmic Sister Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance initiative, funds and supports these grant recipients—and other women—as they educate the public about the benefits and risks of psychedelics and responsible use of sacred plants, including ayahuasca, cannabis and psilocybin, through articles, presentations and public outreach projects.
“Many of us in the ‘full moon’ phase of our lives, or beyond, are compelled to step up to the plate for younger women and girls, as well as for men and boys, because we understand how they too are hurt by archaic gender clichés and cultural limitations,” Helene says.
To find out more information about Zoe Helene, Cosmic Sister, or the Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant, visit cosmicsister.com and read Me and Mama Ayahuasca.
It was during a rare trip to a fast food restaurant that I, an 11-year-old, asked my mother if she ever tried to send telepathic comfort to people who seemed sad. I was referring to the beleaguered-looking cashier, and it was occurring to me for the first time that it might be abnormal to be shaken up by the real or imagined plight of this employee, who was performing what looked to me like thankless servitude. What was revealing itself was what I have started calling “hyperactive empathy.” Though it began adorably in childhood as a penchant for expressing sympathy to the pained, injured or unhappy around me, it grew into something somewhat debilitating. Empathy is a powerful thing. It takes imagination, compassion, intuition. It is one of the most important tools we use in navigating complex human interactions and too much, or too little, can break a person.
Invisibilia, a new podcast from NPR pros Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, is a series that looks at the unseen forces acting on the world around us. A recent episode chronicled the struggle of a woman using the pseudonym “Amanda,” who physically feels everything experienced by those around her. If you eat in front of Amanda, she feels the (apparently unpleasant) sensation of having food shoved in her mouth. When you stub your toe, she feels the same stabbing pain. This phenomenon is actually called Mirror Touch Synesthesia and like the synesthesia that causes some people to see numbers as colors, it is a type of cross-wiring in the brain. When someone like Amanda sees a hug or a slap, her brain activates the same touch centers it would if she herself were hugged or slapped. Pain and sensation are the result of neurological signals, so these mirror sensations are not necessarily less “real” than experienced ones.
The symptoms are not all physical, though this aspect of Mirror Touch is perhaps the most shocking to an outsider. Amanda also reacts to the emotional pain and discomfort of those around her, so she acts as a self-described “chameleon,” disappearing into the lives of the confident or calming. This coping mechanism not only wreaks havoc on her personal relationships as she moves from identity to identity, it also leaves her without much of an identity of her own. This phenomenon is actually documented, as people with conditions like Amanda’s have less gray matter in the areas that distinguish self from other. Amanda and her family speak of both the obvious and the nuanced aspects of being a family full of feel-ers. Mirror Touch Synesthesia runs in families, creating a fascinating and heartbreaking dynamic of people trying to love each other at just enough distance to still be individuals, to still be functioning.
At one point, Spiegel asks, “How do you live when just a trip to the grocery store involves getting intimately entangled with everyone you see?” This question reminds me of my own discomfort in grocery stores, with their disorienting over-saturation of suffering stimuli. Sometimes the weight of the collective emotional baggage of a warehouse-sized microcosm just isn’t worth a box of pancake mix.
Amanda’s story is both cautionary and educational. There is much to be learned from anomalous empathy like Mirror Touch, the forces that instruct us when to distinguish self from other and how to find a healthy balance of these forces. Personally, I hope someday to see an old man run after a bus he will surely miss and go about my day.
Image by dogulove, licensed under Creative Commons.
Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist. His journey to this uncommon calling is profiled in the podcast "On Being with Krista Tippett." If the podcast medium ever had an ideal subject, Hempton and his philosophy of sound might be it. Natural soundscapes like the the hollow hum of wind through driftwood punctuate this fascinating look at something we so rarely think about—the auditory connection to a sense of place. Though he travels the world collecting and recording sound, it is his dedication to silence that provokes the most thought. Silence, to Hempton, is neither empty nor frightening. “Even when we just let it exist,” he says, “it feeds our soul.”
Image By Scotbot, licensed under Creative Commons