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Surgeon General Urges Americans to Walk More to Combat Chronic Disease

Mary K. Caffrey
Research shows that about 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, such as walking, can have significant health benefits. Changes in American lifestyles in recent decades have made limited the amount of time spent walking, with unfortunate results.
Walking just 22 minutes a day goes a long way in preventing chronic conditions like diabetes, heart , and obesity—but getting everyone moving might take a few changes, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, said today.

Murthy issued a “Call to Action,” complete with a 72-page report and a press conference attended by Assistant HHS Secretary Karen DeSalvo, MD, that urged Americans of all ages to take up walking—and for the disabled, more wheelchair rolling. Walking, he said, is the perfect activity—it costs nothing, requires no training, and offers an embraceable starting point for those who have been sedentary.

“We know that an active lifestyle is critical to achieving good overall health. And walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” said Murthy. ”That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities.”

As simple as walking seems, life in the United States puts up plenty of barriers, Murthy said. Long work hours and more jobs involving computers instead of heavy equipment keep Americans sitting. School reform efforts have squeezed out gym classes. Starting with the creation of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s, American residential patterns encouraged driving to destinations instead of walking, although the rise of “new urbanism” is reversing this in some areas.

Most troubling are instances in which women or children won’t walk or play outside because they fear crime, because traffic is too dangerous, or because lighting is poor, Murthy said.  A 2013 study by the US Department of Transportation found that 3 out of every 10 Americans reported that no sidewalks existed along any streets in their neighborhood.

Today’s announcement came with the report, Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities which spelled out the health benefits of walking while addressing the challenges many communities face in providing safe, convenient places for walking or wheelchair rolling. This is part of Murthy's effort at combatting chronic disease, which has been a pillar of his tenure as Surgeon General.

More Walking Takes Planning. The report calls for community planners to take walking and cycling needs into account, and to consider traffic calming measures so that pedestrians can co-exist with cars. In her opening remarks, DeSalvo said these strategies worked during her years as a public health official in the City of New Orleans; today, she said, “Walking traffic is up 170% and biking traffic is up 120%.”

Planning to promote walking is not just about traffic calming, however. New urbanist planners seek to promote walking by integrating retail with housing instead of separating it along highways; streets are laid out in interlocking grids instead of cul-de-sacs; lot sizes are purposely kept small and front setbacks are limited—instead of large individual yards, these communities are laid out with multiple common greenspaces to encourage interaction.

Recent research, especially work Glazier, et al, from Canada, has shown that “walkability” promotes better health outcomes and that lack of walkability is associated with increased diabetes.

Changes at Work, School. Beyond changes in land use, more walking will require commitments from employers and school leaders to incorporate breaks during the day or “walking meetings.” A separate study published recently by NIH found that short bursts of activity had positive health effects on children and could replace longer breaks if the latter were impractical.

Jack Groppel, PhD, co-founder Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, said research shows that a healthier workforce is better for business, but many employers have not yet grasped the benefits the offering opportunities for physical activity at work.

“Our own research demonstrates that if employees not only are physically active but get up and move often and at regular intervals throughout the workday, they are more focused, more engaged and more energized both at work and at home. They are more motivated. Think of the impact that can have on productivity and overall job satisfaction,” he said.

Major Health Problem. Robert E. Sallis, MD, a 25-year family physician from Kaiser Permanente, appeared on behalf of managed care, saying that it’s not just that lack of physical activity contributes to health problems—lack of activity is the health problem.

“We are convinced that these steps can help change the health of countless Americans by increasing the rates of walking and rolling in every community,” Sallis said. “We hope this call to action will signal a change in the priorities that the US healthcare system investing in keeping patients healthy.”

 
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