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The Health Benefits of Walking

4/23/2014 2:19:00 PM

Tags: Jay Walljasper, health, walking, community

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



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