Surgeon General’s Prescription for Health: Walk More

New landmark report announces national campaign to encourage Americans to walk more, by making communities safer and more accessible.

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We’ve always known walking is good for us. It burns calories, reduces stress, and helps the environment.

Less than half of us meet the weekly recommendation for physical activity. 

“An average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity—such as brisk walking—can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” says U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in his newly released Call to Action on Walking. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”

Unfortunately, less than half of us meet the weekly recommendation for physical activity. In a national survey Americans listed issues like unwalkable neighborhoods, busy lifestyles, and crime in their communities as top reasons why they don’t walk more often.

In his new report, Murthy announced a national campaign to encourage Americans to walk more, by making communities safer and more accessible. His office will partner with schools, citizens groups, and businesses to figure out what different neighborhoods need to meet these goals.

“Walking is a simple, effective, and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives,” Murthy says. “That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities.”

The landmark report—which is being compared to the surgeon general’s 1964 warning on the dangers of smoking—is based on medical evidence that moderate physical exercise cuts your chances of diabetes, dementia, depression, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, and high blood pressure by 40 percent or more.

“Walking is a simple, effective, and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives.”

The report is part of a long list of studies recently published on the dangers of sedentary lifestyles. Cambridge University released a major study this year showing that lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity. The findings match another comprehensive study, which found sitting for long periods of time is linked to higher death rates.

This growing body of evidence explains why the surgeon general is so focused on the benefits of walking. Although the recommended amount of daily exercise can be replaced with things like biking or swimming, the American Heart Association found that walking is what people are most likely to stick with over time.

“You don’t have to be an athlete to be physically active, just walk, walk, walk!” says the Bernard J. Tyson, president of Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s largest health care providers that powers the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, a program geared towards getting more Americans walking.

Good for your health, your pocketbook, and the local economy

A rising tide of walkers across America will brings us other benefits too.

Lower health care costs: Physical inactivity costs Americans an estimated $177 billion a year in medical costs, and accounts for 16 percent of all deaths.

More social connections: Strong social connections improve our physical and mental health. Walking is one of the best ways to meet neighbors and deepen ties with friends.

Stronger communities: “Exercise is medicine. It’s also good for the social fabric of our communities,” says former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin. “Health does not just happen in doctors’ offices and clinics—it happens where we work, live, play, and pray.”

Improved school performance: Walking to school boosts cognitive performance in students says Mary Pat King, the National Parent-Teacher Association’s director of programs and projects.

Improved creativity and reduced anxiety: “To solve a problem, walk around,” advised St. Jerome in the 4th century. Fifteen hundred years later, Henry David Thoreau agreed: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

According to a national survey, 85 percent of Americans believe walking helps reduce anxiety and feelings of depression, and two-thirds of Americans report that walking “stimulates their thinking.” 

A stronger economy: “Walking is a business issue,” says Karen Marlo, vice president of the National Business Group on Health. “A healthy workforce means a more successful workforce.”

Indeed, communities with lots of walkable neighborhoods do better economically than those with less accessibility, according to a report from the George Washington University School of Business.

Lower cost of living: When families live where in auto-dependent locations their transportation costs make up 25 percent of their household expenses. That number drops to just 9 percent for families who live in walkable communities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Figuring out how to walk more and drive less can save families thousands of dollars every year.

Higher quality of life: Walk with a Doc , a group of more than 200 doctors, has documented 100 benefits of walking, including increased physical energy, clearer skin, improved athletic performance, reduced anger, increased self-control, longer lifespan, and a greater sense of well-being.