By: Red Hot Mamas
Published: May 26, 2010
By: Marie Demers, Ph.D.
People now walk less than ever, and pedestrians have become an endangered species. Why has such a simple activity been so neglected in the last decades? Walking is so natural that we easily forget its importance for our health and our autonomy…until losing the ability to do so. The sedentary lifestyle adopted by most people is accelerating the aging process. Too few adults now engage in physical activity. When they think about physical activity, most think about work out or sports. Walking does not come to mind first.
The health benefits of walking
Nevertheless, the health benefits of walking are so numerous and its side effects so minimal compared to more vigorous physical activities that more attention should be paid to it, especially when getting older. With age the female body faces metabolic changes increasing the susceptibility to many chronic diseases. Walking does not only increase aerobic capacity and physical fitness, but it provides protection against breast and colon cancer, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, and hip fracture. It helps control weight, blood pressure and cholesterol level, it lowers the risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or dementia. Moreover, it helps relieve the symptoms of stress, depression and fibromyalgia. All that without a pill and at no cost other than a good pair of shoes!
Because it increases bone density, muscle strength and flexibility, walking regularly is also the best way to maintain mobility later in life, which is necessary to preserve an independent lifestyle. Unlike with many sports, the ability to walk does not decline with age. To stay healthy, it is now recommended to walk at least 30 minutes a day. For weight loss, 10,000 steps a day are recommended, which represents about five miles. It might seem a lot, but it takes a lot to burn 3,500 calories, which is the equivalent of one pound of fat.
Why did we stop walking?
Until recently in the history of mankind, walking was the usual way of moving around. In European cities, people still walk a lot – and they are a lot slimmer. What happened during the last 50 years is that gradually most of our daily trips are now done by car, even when they are short enough to be performed on foot. In fact, more than 25% of daily trips in the US are one mile or less while 50% are three miles or less. All those trips could easily be made on foot or by bike. Very often, walking or cycling takes less time than driving because of traffic congestion. But one might argue that it is too dangerous out there for walking. It is little wonder, considering the way cities are now built: for cars rather than for people, with larger streets, heavy traffic, and no sidewalks. These characteristics have all contributed to withdraw pedestrians from the streets. We even perceive the external environment as more dangerous than it really is. So how to reverse this unhealthy trend and make of our cities welcoming places, where human beings can circulate without feeling uncomfortable or risking their life?
How to restore walkable environments
Urban design has to be refocused in order to make cities more pedestrian-friendly. Emphasis should be put on more compact and mixed-use neighborhoods where destinations such as schools, stores, work places and recreational areas are reachable on foot. A traditional street network characterized by a high degree of connectivity should be favored to the hierarchical pattern prevailing in the suburbs, because it reduces trip distance and increases the number of alternative routes. More sidewalks, bike lanes, traffic-calming devices, public parks and squares would also allow people to move around more safely. Finally, a good transit system would provide an alternative to car driving and then reduce the traffic level. Such environments are called neotraditionals because they rely on features found in older cities built before we became dependent on automobiles. Just think of those nice old towns of New England where people are strolling around, or of bigger cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston, which have been declared the best walking cities by the American Podiatric Medical Association.
It is possible to join one of the organizations advocating a more walkable environment, a healthier lifestyle, and a better quality of urban life, or at least to consult their website. They are numerous now at the national as well as at the local level. They include Smart Growth America, Partnership for a Walkable America, America Walks, America on the Move and Safe Routes to School, to name just a few.
First steps for smart walking
Urban design changes will not happen overnight however. Meanwhile, here are some steps to make of walking a healthy habit on an individual basis:
- Convince yourself you have enough time for walking.
- Define a set of routes.
- Establish a routine.
- Set a goal and stick to it.
- Choose the right shoes.
- Wear a pedometer.
- Find a partner; it will make you feel safer and go further.
- Do not use the weather as an excuse for not walking.
- Join a walking club.
- Get of the bus or train one station ahead.
- Park as far as you can when going to the shopping center.
- Always remember that walking is a survival necessity.
Marie Demers Ph.D., a health researcher from Quebec, is the author of Walk for Your Life! Restoring Neighborhood Walkways to Enhance Community Life, Improve Street Safety and Reduce Obesity (Vital Health Publishing, $16.95). For a free online preview, visit www.vitalhealthbooks.com, and click on Book Preview under the title.
To order your own copy, please call 877-VIT-BOOKS.