Sitting Is the New Smoking: Why Walking Is the “Secret Sauce” for Better Health and Happier Communities

Whether you live in the ‘burbs, the city, or the middle of nowhere, the "wonder drug" of walking is just what the doctor ordered.
Woman Walking by Bueno

Photo courtesy of Maria Bueno / Flickr.

Researchers have discovered a "wonder drug" for many of today's most common medical problems, says Dr. Bob Sallis, a family practitioner at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Fontana, California. It's been proven to help treat or prevent diabetes, depression, breast and colon cancer, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety, and osteoporosis, Sallis told leaders at the 2013 Walking Summit in Washington, D.C.

"The drug is called walking," Sallis announced. "Its generic name is physical activity."

Recommended dosage is 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but children should double that to 60 minutes a day, seven days a week. Side effects may include weight loss, improved mood, improved sleep and bowel habits, stronger muscles and bones, as well as looking and feeling better.

"Walkable communities are the key to a strong American Third Century."

Biking, swimming, dancing, gardening, sports, jogging, and aerobics work equally well, Sallis said, but he cites three factors that make walking the most effective treatment:

1) Low or no cost

2) Simple to do for people of all ages, incomes and fitness levels

3) Walking is Americans' favorite physical activity, so you are more likely to stick with a walking program than with other fitness prescriptions.

Sallis urges all physicians to prescribe walking for their patients because "physical inactivity is pandemic today," as the authoritative British medical journal The Lancet reported last year in a special issue devoted to the benefits of physical activity.

Studies published in other leading medical journals show that walking and other physical activity could cut rates of many of these diseases by at least 40 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This would save Americans more than $100 billion a year in health care costs, according to the American Public Health Association.

Nice Surprise: Walking is Good for Us in Many Ways

Increased levels of walking and physical activity can bring other social benefits too, said authorities from the fields of public health, education, community development, and social policy at the national Walking Summit held October 1–3.

"Developers are here because walking promotes successful economic development. Environmentalists are here because walking reduces carbon emissions."

Vital Communities:

Dr. Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General from 2009-2013, said, "You know that exercise is medicine. It's also good for the social fabric of our communities." That's the reason Benjamin built a walking path on the grounds of a health clinic she founded in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.

Lower Health Care Costs:

George Halvorson, chairman of Kaiser Permanente, declared, "The only way we can overcome the chronic disease epidemic is to walk," which will also save billions in health care costs and sustain Medicare for the future. Halvorson noted that diabetes type 2 alone accounts for 34 percent of Medicare costs. Kaiser Permanente, which serves 9.1 million members across the United States, has made physical activity a vital sign that health care professionals should chart and act on along with a patient's weight, family health, and blood pressure.

Improved School Performance:

Mary Pat King, director of Programs and Projects for the National PTA, reported that walking to school "supports cognitive performance" in students, which is why the organization passed a resolution pushing for more walkable schools.

Stronger Economy:

Karen Marlo, vice-president of the National Business Group on Health, an alliance of leading companies, explained, "Walking is a business issue. A healthy workforce means a more successful workforce. It's important for businesses to share effective ways to get employees to walk more."

Better Neighborhoods:

Harriet Tregoning, director of the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning, said, "What makes people walk is what makes great places to live. Walkability is the secret sauce that improves the performance of many other things."

All these examples show why people from different sectors with different missions embrace walking as a solution, explained Tyler Norris, co-chair of Every Body Walk! and Kaiser Permanente vice president. "Police care about walking because it's good for public safety. Developers are here because walking promotes successful economic development. Environmentalists are here because walking reduces carbon emissions."

Birth of a Movement

The summit was convened by Kaiser Permanente and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which includes more than 100 business, government, and nonprofit partners. The audience included more than 400 participants from 41 states and Canada representing 235 organizations from the AARP, the NAACP, and the PGA Tour to Marriott Inc., the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Health Department, and Bike Walk Greenville (South Carolina).

The 2013 Walking Summit focused on how to encourage more Americans to walk, and how to make communities across the country more walkable. Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a coalition of 470 organizations nationwide, joked that the ultimate goal was to make "sitting the new smoking." His ambitious vision for 2020 is that all Americans walk enough each day to enjoy health benefits and that all communities provide a safe, comfortable environment for people to walk.

Every point over 70 on Walk Score results in increased rent of 90 cents per square foot for commercial property and a rise in home values of $20 per square foot for residential property.

Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of Girl Trek, which organizes walking groups for African-American women and girls to "improve their health and heal their communities," opened the summit by announcing, "Neighbor, we've got work to do!"

Garrison emphasized that walking is not just for folks "in Portland and Boston," a theme that echoed during the three-day event. Walking is for everyone—no matter if you live in an inner city neighborhood or a suburb without sidewalks or a rural community, no matter whether you are out of shape or a youngster or roll in a wheelchair.

Garrison emphasized that walking should be a natural part of our daily lives, rather than something we add on specifically for exercise, health or recreation. "I have the pleasure of walking every day to the store, the dry cleaners, the post office, to the park with my husband. That's no accident," she said. It's the result of deliberate urban planning that locates important destinations within walking distance—a traditional common-sense idea called walkability, which is at the heart of making our communities more safe, comfortable, and convenient for walking.

"Walkable communities are the key to a strong American Third Century," observed Tyler Norris. "They help protect us from spiraling health care costs in great part driven by preventable chronic disease, while creating vibrant communities that are fonts of equitable prosperity."

Real estate developer Christopher Leinberger of LOCUS outlined how the rise of walkability is good for our economic future. Every point over 70 on Walk Score (the website rating the walkability of any address in America) results in increased rent of 90 cents per square foot for commercial property and a rise in home values of $20 per square foot for residential property.

An unintended consequence of this trend might be a decline in social equity in walkable neighborhoods as housing becomes more expensive for low-income people. Yolanda Savage-Narva, campaign director of America Walks, laid out one of the key goals for the walking movement at a debriefing session after the summit: "Everyone has an inherent right to walk."

The first event of its kind, the 2013 Walking Summit was sold out more than a month in advance.

"The enthusiasm, energy and excitement for promoting walking and walkability here is contagious," noted Deb Hubsmith, founder and director of the Safe Routes to Schools Partnership.

"This is a movement being born."