Walking: A Simple “Step” for Human, Community and Climate Health

Sun, rain, or snow, walking is an eco-friendly form of exercise most people can do throughout their lifetime. According to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, walking has numerous preventative and therapeutic health benefits. It’s also easy: It comes naturally, requires little to no equipment, and can be adapted to one’s schedule and lifestyle. And needless to say, it’s greenhouse-gas free. Those are some reasons why, in 2015, the Surgeon General’s office launched Step It Up!, a national health initiative that “calls on Americans to make walking a part of their daily activity and to take steps to make every community in [the nation] a great place to walk.”

Inspired by that effort, America Walks, a national nonprofit working to increase walking and make America a better place to be physically active, established its Every Body Walk! micro-grants program. This program is designed to help grassroots efforts in municipalities across the country to create safer, more accessible and enjoyable ways to facilitate walking. America Walks recently announced the 22 winners of its second round of funding, which was supported by WalkBoston, a Massachusetts nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group; TransitCenter, a national foundation dedicated to improving urban public transit; and the American College of Sports Medicine.

Micro Grants, Macro Impacts

The winning projects use art, signage, social support, environmental design, and other innovations to facilitate and promote walking; about a quarter of them focus on increasing pedestrian access to and expanding public transit networks. The locations involved range from cities as large as Baltimore, MD  (pop. 600,000+) to towns as small as Burke, SD (pop 604). Targeted communities include youth, seniors (or both); the visually or ambulatory impaired; LGBT people; Native Americans; homeless families; and people with HIV, among others. All of the initiatives provide models mayors and city leaders can use to enhance walkability in their cities and neighborhoods.

Several winning projects were created by community leaders. Here are just two of them:

  • City of Burke, South Dakota. Residents and community leaders are using their grant to put in place the city’s first walkway. The new path will provide safe passage across a highway, connecting residents to a school sports complex. Children, families, and residents will enjoy the benefits of a safer, more walkable and interconnected city.
  • The City of Okolona, Mississippi. Located in rural Mississippi, this small rural town will use proceeds from the award to construct a walking path to connecting low income housing and a community garden—providing residents, children and families with a safe walking zone in their community.

Walking: The Climate and Health Connection

It’s particularly important for health care professionals to promote walking. In terms of climate, anything we can do to get out of our personal cars – walking, biking, or taking public transit (which usually involves some walking to and from a stop or station) – means reduced emissions of C02 and other airborne pollutants. It also promotes socializing outdoors – where better to spontaneously “talk climate” with others?

In terms of health, the official Step It Up! Call to Action report notes that one out of every two U.S. adults is living with a chronic disease (including heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, the leading causes of death and disability). Increasing one’s physical activity levels significantly reduces incidence and severity of these health risks, yet only 50 percent of U.S. adults get the recommended amount of aerobic exercise.

To remedy that situation, Surgeon General Murthy considers walking (or rolling, for wheelchair users) a bona-fide public health strategy because it’s a low-hanging fruit for both providers and most of the populations they serve. To that end, his Call to Action asks all sectors to encourage walking and walk-friendly community design as part of their missions. The Call points to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendation that medical staff counsel their at-risk patients about the need for physical activity, and then help them to create a custom walking routine – or even write a prescription for walking! Public health professionals can then conduct research on what works to promote and sustain walking and walkable communities, and then share their findings with other sectors that can implement them.

Getting More Involved

The application process for the 2018 round of America Walks micro grants will begin this fall, according to Heidi Simon, the group’s communications and public affairs manager. For more information, visit the America Walks website or contact Heidi at hsimon@americawalks.org. 

America Walks also has many “anytime” resources for health professionals and community leaders, including case studies, tips, discussion forums, and webinars.

Meanwhile, the American Public Health Association has launched its One Billion Steps Challenge as part of its annual National Public Health Week. The goal: get participants to walk a collective total of one billion steps between Jan 9 and April 9 (the end of NPHW). Your practice or organization can become a Billion Steps Challenge partner, create a team to join a walking event, or even create your own event. If you do, it’s a great opportunity to apply the communications strategies found in ecoAmerica’s Let’s Talk Health and Climate guide.

Miranda Spencer is a freelance writer and editor specializing in environmental issues. If you have comments, questions, ideas, or would like to submit a blog of your own, feel free to contact her at miranda@ecoamerica.org.

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