Health Benefits of Walking

What if there was a way to reduce the risk of many major diseases at the same time as helping improve your overall health, decreasing your weight and boosting your energy? And what if this treatment was simple to do and took only a few minutes each week?

Wait, it gets even better! What if this could be accomplished with no special equipment or training and it would cost absolutely nothing.  You could do it any time and place you want--in fact, the vast majority of us have been doing it since the age of two.

Well, this health breakthrough actually exists. Taking a walk (or rolling on a bike or in wheelchair) for 30 minutes a day will cut your chances of dementia, depression, anxiety, diabetes, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and osteoporosis by at least 40 percent, according to a surge of recent medical research.

If more people adopted this easy habit, the United States alone could save as much as $100 billion a year in health care costs. And there’s growing recognition that our kids would do better in school, our neighborhoods would become friendlier and we’d all more happy.  It’s the best way to enjoy the pleasure of public places, and to strengthen the spirit of the commons in your community.

Do the Right Thing

Growing numbers of people are ready to embrace the benefits of walking.  Going for a walk is already Americans’ favorite activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and we walk six percent more on average than a decade ago. Walkable communities--where schools, shops and entertainment can be easily reached on foot--are a red-hot real estate trend. A new coalition of more than 500 local advocacy groups, America Walks, is pushing to make walking more convenient and safe across the country.

A national movement to promote walking was launched last year at the Walking Summit in Washington, DC, attended by more than 400 people from 41 states and 235 organizations, ranging from AARP and the NAACP to Marriott Inc. and the Sioux Falls (SD) Health Department.

The public clearly understands that walking is good for them and their families.  A national survey commissioned by Kaiser Permanente found that 94 percent of Americans believe walking is good for our health, 91 percent believe it helps us lose weight and 85 percent that it reduces depression.

Americans will get even more encouragement to take a stroll this year when the US Surgeon General’s office releases an official Call to Action on Walking and Walkability, which highlights the mounting medical evidence that walking is one of the best ways to prevent disease and stay healthy. Yet the CDC reports that 52 percent of all Americans still don’t meet the CDC’s recommended minimum for physical activity: 30 minutes a day five days a week for adults, and one hour a day for kids.

To change this situation, more than two dozen leaders of the emerging walking movement gathered this spring in Washington, DC to work on a compelling message to encourage more Americans to walk.

The meeting--sponsored by Every Body Walk!, a collaborative of more than 100 organizations representing health care, business, government and citizen organizations--featured Jonah Berger, a Wharton School marketing professor who wrote the bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

What Stops Us From Walking?

“Everybody knows they should walk, so why aren’t they?” Berger asked, raising the question of how do we overcome barriers, both physical and psychological, that stop people from getting on their feet?

The public opinion survey sponsored by Kaiser Permanente (which powers the Every Body Walk! Collaborative and convened the Walking Summit) listed people’s most common reasons for not walking:

*Few places within walking distance of my home:  40 percent
*Don’t have time: 39 percent
*Don’t have the energy: 36 percent
*Lack of sidewalks or speeding traffic: 25 percent
*No one to walk with: 25 percent
*Crime in my neighborhood: 13 percent

How to Talk About Walking So Others Will Listen

Here’s a compilation of ideas to overcome these barriers coming out of the walking strategy meeting:

-Emphasize how the benefits of walking go beyond health

You’ll enjoy more vitality and energy.  You’ll experience less stress and anxiety.  You’ll look better and feel more creative. You’ll have more fun.

-Identify yourself as a regular walker

Literally, talk your walk. Tell people why you love it.

-Remember walkers are athletes too

There’s nothing pedestrian about walking 5K or10K. Some communities host walking marathons and half-marathons.

-Encourage people to start their day with a walk

They’ll feel invigorated all day, which reinforces the message that walking refreshes and energizes you.

-Suggest replacing driving to the gym with walks around the neighborhood

Save time and money while getting to know your neighbors.

How to Make Walking More Visible

-Wear Gold Shoe Laces

The African-American women’s walking organization Girl Trek, outfits members with gold shoelaces for their walking shoes to reveal themselves as regular walkers. 

-Call on the Power of Art

 Public art on the theme of walking serves as a reminder to take a stroll. Artists design crosswalks, trail signs and gateways to walking paths that capture people’s imaginations.

-Enlist high-profile local figures to schedule regular public walks.

People will don their sneakers for the chance to walk with a public official, athlete, entertainer or physician.

How to Encourage Others to Walk

-Plan a walk with friends & family

 Suggest a walk first and then maybe a meal or drink or movie or round of cards

- Walk Every Wednesday

Around the country, people are organizing walks every Wednesday. (#WalkingWednesday on twitter). 

-Suggest a Walking Meeting

Energize that afternoon discussion by doing it on foot.  Do your next phone meeting standing up. 

-Organize a Walking Club

Like a book club, but with water bottles instead of novels.

-Turn Your Coffee Break into a Stroll

Recruit co-workers for a refreshing trot out on the sidewalk or around the campus.

-Issue a Walking Challenge

 Try some friendly competition by seeing who’s the first to walk a hundred miles. North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital sponsored a contest encouraging its employees to walk the distance from New York to Paris, with some winning a free trip to the French capital.

-Establish a Black Belt for Walkers

Many of us are drawn to compete with ourselves.  Create awards for people hoofing it a half-hour for 365 days straight or striding the distance of the earth’s equator (24,901 miles).

How to Make Your Community More Walkable

-Post Signs Around Town Listing the Walking Times to Popular Destinations

Walk Raleigh, a fledgling group in Raleigh, North Carolina, hung up 27 handmade signs around downtown that became so popular the city posted their own official versions.

-Mark a Definite Walking Route

A walk after dinner is an enduring custom in Mediterranean and Latin American countries.  Italians call it a passeggiata. People generally follow the same route through the heart of town, making it a social occasion as much as exercise regimen.

-Tell everyone: “If they can walk in LA, we can do it here.”

Famous for auto-cracy, Los Angeles actually harbors many walkers and hosts the Big Parade, an “epic public walk” that covers 40 miles and 100 public stairways over two days accompanied by food, music and art. Every town could create its own walking parade or festival.

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about how to improve community life. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. Hiswebsite www.JayWalljasper.com


Tapping into the healing effect of the placebo.

Western medicine has long viewed the placebo effect as a nuisance, getting in the way of knowing whether a drug is actually effective. But in the past couple of decades a few doctors—perhaps most notably Andrew Weil—have come to the defense of the placebo effect, calling it a low cost, effective method of healing with no toxic side effects.

“I think the placebo response is the greatest ally that a practitioner has,” Dr. Weil has said. “The best kind of medicine is that which elicits the maximum placebo response with a minimum direct impact on the physical body.” Now, reports Joseph Dispenza for Spirituality & Health (March/April 2014, article not online) researchers are investigating just how to do that.

A 2010 study led by Harvard’s Ted Kaptchuk found that placebos can work even when people know they’re taking a placebo. In the study, 40 people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) received a bottle clearly labeled “Placebo Pills.” They were told the placebos had previously calmed other patients’ IBS symptoms through a self-healing process. The other half received nothing, serving as the control group. Three weeks later, the experimental group reported twice as much relief as those who hadn’t received any treatment—a rate comparable to the best IBS drugs currently available.

How did it happen? It’s basically a self-fulfilling prophecy. By taking the placebo—and believing in its effectiveness—we are able to unlock a mind-body connection that triggers the body to heal itself. While the placebo effect certainly needs much more research, one thing is clear: The power of intention, mind, and body is greater than we’ve allowed ourselves to think.

Image by formatbrain, licensed under Creative Commons.


Turns out anyone can cultivate empathic skills—even psychopaths.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part ten of ten (part nine).

In daily life, calling someone a “psychopath” or a “sociopath” is a way of saying that the person is beyond redemption. Are they?


When neuroscientist James Fallon accidentally discovered that his brain resembled that of a psychopath—showing less activity in areas of the frontal lobe linked to empathy—he was confused. After all, Fallon was a happily married man, with a career and good relationships with colleagues. How could he be beyond redemption?


Additional genetic tests revealed “high-risk alleles for aggression, violence, and low empathy.” What was going on? Fallon decided he was a “pro-social psychopath,” someone whose genetic and neurological inheritance makes it hard for him to feel empathy, but who was gifted with a good upbringing and environment—good enough to overcome latent psychopathic tendencies.


This self-description found support in a study published this year by Swiss and German researchers, which showed education levels and “social desirability” seemed to improve empathy in diagnosed psychopaths. Another new study found that empathy deficits don’t necessarily lead to aggression.


It seems that psychopaths can be taught to feel empathy and compassion, though they have a disability that makes developing those skills difficult. When a team of researchers looked at the brain activity of psychopathic criminals in the Netherlands, for example, they discovered the predictable empathic deficits. But they also found that it made a difference in their brains to simply ask the criminals to empathize with others—hinting that empathy may be repressed rather than missing entirely in people classified as psychopaths. For some, at least, it may help a great deal to lift that repression.


Psychopathy remains an intractable mental illness and social problem—this year’s studies of treatment did not reveal a magic bullet that would turn psychopaths into angels. But we can take heart in the fact that if they can develop empathic skills, anyone can.

Image by Sean MacEntee, licensed under Creative Commons.


A “fat lady with a nutrition degree” urges us to make friends with food and our bodies

From incessant press coverage of the obesity epidemic to diet manuals masquerading as health magazines, Americans’ weight and eating habits seem to be under constant surveillance. Surrounded as we are by “thinspiration” and cupcake shops, it’s little wonder we’ve become a nation of disordered eaters, guilt-ridden about indulgences, confused about food, and searching desperately for the mythical experience of “normal eating.”

What a breath of fresh air, then, the fat-positive, food-positive attitude of Michelle Allison, The Fat Nutritionist. On her blog, the self-described “fat lady with a nutrition degree,” investigates the meeting points of food, body, mind, and culture, empowering readers to love themselves and whatever food they choose to eat. For Bitch (issue 60), Julie Smolinski writes that Allison “encourages readers to be independent, unashamed, and most of all, satisfied in their eating.”

Healthy relationships rarely come from loathing or suspicion. Relationships to our bodies and food are no exception. Allison grasps this and shouts it out. “I’m not here to give you a stern talking-to about your weight, or your eating habits, or your lack of exercise,” she writes. “But I can help you get to a friendly place with food and your body.

Photo by Janine, licensed under Creative Commons.


Switch Track
How context influences our sense of right and wrong.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part nine of ten (part eight).

An out-of-control train will kill five people. You can switch the train onto another track and save them—but doing so will kill one person. What should you do?


A series of experiments published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that on one day you’ll divert the train and save those five lives—but on another you might not. It all depends on how the dilemma is framed and how we’ve been thinking about ourselves.


Through the train dilemma and other experiments, the study revealed two factors that can influence our moral decisions. The first involves how morality has been defined for you, in this case around consequences or rules. For example, when researchers asked participants to think in terms of consequences, some readily diverted the train, thus saving four lives. On the other hand, those who prompted to think in terms of rules (e.g., “thou shalt not kill”) let the five die. But that factor was influenced by another that depends on memory and whether your past ethical or unethical behavior is on your mind—a memory of a good deed might make you more likely to cheat, for example, if urged to think of consequences. It’s the complex interaction between those two factors that shapes your decision.


That wasn’t the only study published during the past year that revealed how susceptible we are to context. One study found that people are more moral in the morning than in the afternoon. Another study, cleverly titled “Hunger Games,” found that when people are hungry, they express more support for charitable giving. Yet another experiment discovered that thinking about money makes you more inclined to cheat at a game—but thinking about time keeps you honest.


The bottom line is that our sense of right and wrong is heavily influenced by seemingly trivial variables in memory, in our bodies, and in changes within our environment. This doesn’t necessarily lead us to pessimistic conclusions about humanity—in fact, knowing how our minds work might help us to make better moral decisions

Image by Mark Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons.


Stack of paperwork
Employees are motivated by giving as well as getting.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part eight of ten (part seven).


Over the past two decades, work satisfaction has declined, while time spent at work has significantly increased. Not a good combination!


Would paying people more money help? Some studies have shown that rewarding employees for their hard work and late nights at the office with a bonus will make things a little better and quiet dissatisfaction. But in September, through the collaborative research of Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Jordi Quoidbach, we learned that employee bonuses might have the most positive effects when they’re spent on others. The researchers suggested an alternative bonus offer that has the potential to provide some of the same benefits as team-based compensation—increased social support, cohesion, and performance—while carrying fewer drawbacks.


Their first experiment focused on broad, self-reported measures of the impact of prosocial bonuses on an employee’s job satisfaction. They were either given a bonus to spend on charity or were not given a bonus at all. Those who gave to charities reported increased happiness and job satisfaction. The second experiment was conducted in two parts—both focused on “sports team orientation” by looking at the difference between donating to a charity or a fellow employee—and attempted to see if these improved actual performance. In the first part of the experiment, these participants were given $20 and told to spend it on a teammate or on themselves over the course of the week. In the second part of this experiment, they were instructed to spend $22 on themselves or on a specified teammate over the course of the week. Both of these experiments found more positive effects for givers than those who spent the $22 on themselves.


This collaborative research indicates that prosocial bonuses can benefit both individuals and teams, on both psychological and “bottom line” indicators, in both the short and long-term. So when you receive your bonus this year, you might want to think twice before buying those pair of shoes you’ve been dying for, instead consider spending it on someone else—because, according to this research, you’ll probably be much happier and more satisfied with your job.

Ed. note: The results of this study, while interesting, are not meant to imply that we shouldn’t be working fewer hours overall, or eliminating meaningless work altogether..

Photo by Isaac Bowen, licensed under Creative Commons.


Thank You, Sugar

Gratitude helps lessen suicidal thoughts, says a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good. This is part seven of ten (part six).

Across a four-week period, 209 college students answered questions to measure depression, suicidal thoughts, grit, gratitude, and meaning in life. The idea was to see if the positive traits—grit and gratitude—mitigated the negative ones. Since depression is a large contributing factor to suicide, they controlled for that variable throughout the study.


Grit, said the authors, is “characterized by the long-term interests and passions, and willingness to persevere through obstacles and setbacks to make progress toward goals aligned or separate from these passionate pursuits.” It stands to reason that someone with lots of grit wouldn’t waste much time on suicidal thoughts.


But what about gratitude? That entails noticing the benefits and gifts received from others, and it gives an individual a sense of belonging. That should make life living—and, indeed, the researchers found that gratitude and grit worked synergistically together to make life more meaningful and to reduce suicidal thoughts, independent of depression symptoms.


As the authors note, their study has huge clinical implications: If therapists can specifically foster gratitude in suicidal people, they should be able to increase their sense that life is worth living. This new finding adds to a pile of new research on the benefits of gratitude. Saying “thanks” can make you happier, sustain your marriage through tough times, reduce envy, and even improve physical health.

Photo by Lachlan Hardy, cropped under the Creative Commons license.

Pay Now & Save $5!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!