Making Neighborhoods More Walkable Can Help Us All Enjoy Better Health

Physical exercise

By Joy Stephenson-Laws and the pH health care professionals

How walkable is your neighborhood?

According to Walk Score, a website that rates the walkability of neighborhoods anywhere in the United States, Canada and Australia on a scale of zero to 100, “The average resident of a walkable neighborhood weighs 6-10 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling (versus compact) neighborhood.”

What are some of the other characteristics of a walkable neighborhood?

  • Errands can be accomplished on foot
  • Good public transportation
  • Bikeable
  • Safe, clean sidewalks
  • Trees
  • Low crime rate

Thousands of years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates said, "[w]alking is  man's best medicine." We know this to be just as true today! However, many of us aren’t taking our “medicine” whether we live in a walkable neighborhood or not. We sit on couches, in cars, at desks and in front of our favorite TV shows. Most of us spend way more time sitting than walking. But perhaps we can find ways to walk more.

The U.S. Surgeon General has an initiative called Step It Up! to promote walking -- and one way to increase walking is by making communities more walkable. Everyone can participate in this effort. For example, you could start a clean-up effort to make your local neighborhood more attractive or participate in community planning meetings. Colleges can make their campuses more walkable, and community designers can work toward implementing more safe, enjoyable walking spaces in your city. Patients can also talk to their doctors to overcome any roadblocks that may be stopping them from getting exercise.

You can also get creative with using spaces in your community that are already walkable, whether that’s a school track field, church, shopping mall or simply walking to the bus or train stop to get to work.

But let’s take this a step further. We know you should walk, but ...

Why should you walk?

  • Reduce your chronic disease risk. Regular physical activity may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Walking may also prevent early death, the Surgeon General says. It can even help those who have a chronic disease better manage it. Chronic diseases are the leading causes of death in the United States. Almost 50% of U.S. adults are living with a chronic disease.
  • Decrease your risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. A 10-year study of 229 postmenopausal women had the subjects either walk at least one mile a day or simply continue normal activities. At the end of the trial, the walkers had an 82 percent lower risk of heart disease, Harvard University reported. If you don’t have the time to go for a walk, how about a 5-minute run? A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggests as little as 5 to 10 minutes of running a day, even at slow speeds, can significantly lower your risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack or stroke. This is great news considering one of the top barriers to exercise is finding the time.
  • Increase your life expectancy. Sitting for over three hours per day may increase your risk of death overall. Walking during your work day may decrease your sitting time and decrease the health risks associated with it. A study of older adults in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even participants who exercised the least each week (two 45-minute power walks or five slower walks) still decreased their risk of death by 22 percent. The study authors recommended beginner-level senior exercisers start walking 15 minutes a day to improve their health. And lastly, in a meta-analysis from the University College London, scientists found walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent and cut the risk of dying by 32 percent (for both men and women!). These protective benefits were seen for those who walked as slowly as 2 miles per hour and covered distances of just 5 and a half miles per week.
  • Decrease your risk for several types of cancer. A recent study suggests exercise may reduce your risk of getting multiple kinds of cancer. In this study, researchers analyzed data from more than one million Americans and Europeans and found that exercise reduced the risk of 13 cancers out of the 26 they studied. The risk was reduced by anywhere from 10 to 42 percent.
  • Help older adults gain independence after hospitalization. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the immobility of older patients in hospitals, bringing attention to the damage it can do, including disability, ending up in a nursing home and ultimately death. The solution, the study authors pointed out, is more mobility! They deployed mobility coaches to help patients walk and move safely.
  • Lower blood sugar levels for diabetics. In a study published in Diabetologia, scientists compared two sets of advice for adults with Type 2 diabetes are often given: going for a 30-minute walk each day or walking for 10 minutes after each main meal. What did they find? Timing matters! Participants’ blood glucose levels were much lower when they walked for just 10 minutes after each meal.
  • Improve your quality of life. Walking can help you manage your weight, prevent falls and improve your balance and coordination, reduce depression and improve mental functioning, the Surgeon General says. And the good news? Any amount of physical activity is beneficial! However, the ideal amount is at least 2 and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity per week, 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity per week or a combination of the two. Kids and teens should get an hour of physical activity each day.

As we find more ways to make our neighborhoods more walkable, keep these health benefits in mind as you find an excuse to get up and walk around throughout your day. Remember, some of the best medicine, like walking, is easy to do and free.

Do you know what your neighborhood's walkability score is?  If you don't, you can get it here .

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.

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