The next big health care breakthrough -- which could significantly cut rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers, and dementia, help treat depression and save Americans $198 billion a year by 2018 -- comes from a place you'd least expect. On your block. At the park. Everywhere.
"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 number one as Americans' favorite physical activity, and that doing it for as little as 30 minutes is one way to achieve significant health benefits.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin announced that she is preparing a 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, D.C. to advance a national walking movement. "Everyone can do it and it's fun."
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. 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. A national summit to launch a walking movement is now being planned for October 1-3 in Washington, D.C. (details available soon at EverybodyWalk.org).
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 young individuals and people with disabilities.
Real estate developer Christopher Leinberger outlines the powerful economic arguments in favor of walking. "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."
Americans already walk more than many people realize, accounting for 11 percent of daily transportation trips nationally according to the U.S. 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.
Six in 10 Americans report taking a walk in the past week, according to a recent publication from the 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 walkable communities. And the launch of a new walking movement offers promise for substantially increasing Americans' physical activity.
Adapted from the booklet "Walking Revolution:The Movement to Make Americans Happier and Healthier."