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Our Bodies Are Made for Walking

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities.  He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.

Tolfa in Italy, a town made for walking.

Few things in life relieve stress, instill creativity and boost health and more than taking a stroll.

“Walking is a man’s best medicine,” Hippocrates declared in the 4th Century BCE. “To solve a problem, walk around,” St. Jerome advised during Roman times. “When we walk, we come home to ourselves,” observes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

This ancient wisdom is now backed up by modern science. A flurry of recent medical studies document the physical and mental health effects of walking as little as 30 minutes a day.

“The human body is designed to walk. Humans walk better than any other species on earth,” explained George Halvorson—former CEO of the healthcare network Kaiser Permanente—at the 2017 National Walking Summit in St. Paul on September 13-15, 2017. The three-day events was organized by America Walks—a non-profit group encompassing more than 800 state and local organizations.

“We get less disease when we walk. We recover from disease sooner when we walk,” he said, noting half of all US healthcare costs stem from chronic diseases, which walking helps prevent and treat. “We can save Medicare when we walk.”

The Summit—which attracted more than 600 community leaders, health professionals, planners and public officials from 45 states—celebrated the growing public awareness of walking’s many benefits. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy urged Americans to walk more in a Call to Action in 2015, and the National Association of Realtors reports that “places to take walks” are the #1 quality home buyers look for in a neighborhood. Recent research also links walkable places to economic opportunities, social equity, stronger communities and a cleaner environment.

Is Everybody Welcome to Walk?


But Summit goers were reminded there’s a long way to go before walking is safe and convenient for all Americans—a point highlighted at the opening reception by St. Paul deputy mayor Kristin Beckmann, who announced that a 7-year-old girl and a 91-year-old man had been struck down by hit-and-run drivers in the previous 24 hours. The girl suffered a broken leg and the man a concussion in a city ranked relatively high for walkability, according to Walkscore.

Pedestrian death and injuries are rising across the country at an alarming rate, as part of an overall spike in traffic crashes, noted many speakers at the conference. Speeding and drunk driving (which frequently involves speeding) are the chief culprits. The influential National Transportation Safety Board recently targeted speeding as an overlooked and deadly problem in America.

Younger and older Americans are not the only ones at risk. The summit focused particular attention on challenges people on foot face in racially and economically disadvantaged communities, as well as rural areas.

“African-Americans are more likely to not live near good places to walk and bike, and more likely to be hit by a car or stopped by police while walking,” noted Rutgers University transportation researcher Charles Brown.

Tamika Butler, director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, pointed out that people of color often are left out of walkability plans. “We’ve been walking for a long time— to school, to work. But one no seems to think about making our places more walkable until other kinds of people start moving in.”

Unwelcoming streets that deter walkers can become impassable roadblocks to the 54 million Americans who live with disabilities. “I walk when I drive my wheelchair,” said Maryland activist Juliette Rizzio. “So I proudly stand with you to promote inclusion. Walkability. Rollability. Possibility!”


Tyler Norris, CEO of the Well Being Trust, remembered civil rights activist Shavon Arline-Bradley asking a pointed question at the first Walking Summit in 2013: “Is everybody welcome to walk?”

Charles Brown offered an answer at the closing session of this year’s Summit’s. “I see the support, the commitment here to equity,” which he described as an understanding that communities suffering historic disinvestment need help to catch up. “This is the beginning of a movement.”

The Path Forward


The first-ever report card on walking and walkable communities was announced at the Summit, underscoring the importance of the emerging walking movement. The United States as a whole gets a failing grade in the following subjects: 1) pedestrian safety; 2) pedestrian infrastructure; 3) walking opportunities for children; 4) business and non-profit sector policies; and 5) public transportation, which is a key factor in walkable communities. We earned a D for public policies promoting walking, and a C in walking opportunities for adults.

A collective gasp swept the audience as the grades appeared on a screen. Russell Pate—one of America’s leading experts on physical activity—provided some context. “We know these are better than they would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Millions of people met the standards and so did some communities.” Pate and colleagues at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health oversaw a committee of scholars from numerous fields to assess the state of walking today as part of the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance.

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