By Jay Walljasper
Walking has come a long way in just a few years.
Not so long ago the habit of taking a stroll struck many people as ancient history—it seemed slow, tedious and tiring. Why bother, when you could drive or stay on the couch?
Now, at last, attitudes about walking are beginning to change. A growing movement aims to get America back on its feet, propelled by alarming rises in obesity, chronic disease and health care costs.
“Walking has a huge impact. It makes people healthier. It makes medications work better. It makes people happier. And the effects are immediate—you’ll feel better after a few months of walking,” notes George Halvorson, former CEO of Kaiser-Permanente, America’s largest integrated health care company.
That’s why Kaiser Permanente launched an initiative in 2007 to encourage walking as a stepping stone to good health— beginning with their 200,000 employees in nine states and then spreading word farther through creative media strategies and support for walking advocacy organizations.
This new Every Body Walk! Campaign pushed beyond the usual calls for Americans to exercise more. “Our philosophy in public health is to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do,” Halvorson says. That’s why the emerging walking movement pays close attention to lowering barriers that discourage people from walking and emphasizes that all Americans need safe, convenient and comfortable places to walk.
“Research shows that walking can give you seven more years of life. The health benefits of walking are so overwhelming that to deny access to that is a violation of fundamental human rights,” declared sociologist Robert Bullard—founder of the environmental justice movement—at the 2015 National Walking Summit.
Around the time Kaiser Permanente launched its campaign, the health benefits of walking were becoming apparent to many others. First Lady Michelle Obama organized the Let’s Move campaign. Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones, which details the importance of everyday exercise such as walking and gardening for longevity, hit the bestseller lists. The American College of Sports Medicine launched its Exercise is Medicine program. The National Physical Activity Guidelines were issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Research showing that moderate exercise is as beneficial as intense workouts was gaining attention, including the work of the University of South Carolina’s Steve Blair and Russell Pate.
Indeed, many organizations outside health care were getting excited about the potential of walking to improve people’s lives. An inaugural meeting of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative in 2012 included participants from AARP, NAACP, EPA, YMCA, PTA, USDOT, Nike and more than 100 other organizations.
“As well as improving health, the value of walking reaches across many different issues — social equity, local economic vitality, a stronger sense of community, improved student performance,” explains Tyler Norris, a convener of that meeting who at that time was Kaiser Permanente Vice-President of Total Health.
But the major reason millions of Americans are rediscovering walking is the sheer pleasure of it. Meandering around town. Hiking through nature. Running errands with less stress. Feeling more connected to the world around you—flowers blooming, kids frolicking, neighbors saying hello.
In addition to the National Walking Summit, a national convening of walking advocates, and continuing work of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, the walking movement is moving forward on a number of fronts. The chief focus remains, as always, improving the safety, convenience and comfort of walking in local communities.