What Should the Surgeon General Say to Get More People Walking?

What if cars came with a Surgeon General’s warning like the ones that come on cigarette packs: “Sitting in this seat could lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and divorce.”

The Surgeon General wants your help to get more people to walk for exercise and transportation. Photo: ##http://digitaldeconstruction.com/why-people-in-cities-walk-fast/#.UVr3b6tARU0##Digital Deconstruction##

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is getting ready to go halfway there. She announced in December that she’d be issuing a call to action on walking sometime in 2014. Yesterday, she and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked for help crafting the call.

The CDC opened a docket yesterday to solicit information from the public “on walking as an effective way to be sufficiently active for health.” That information will be used as part of the call to action.

The wording is notable. The CDC is making the case that even if walking is the only exercise you do, it could be “sufficient” to stay healthy.  It echoes the recent findings of Australian researchers, who concluded that going to the gym isn’t as effective as active transportation at keeping weight off – largely because it’s easier to work exercise into your day when it accomplishes two goals at once.

What the CDC is trying to do is identify not only what government agencies can do, but what civic organizations, health care providers, educational institutions, worksites, industry, and others can do to provide access to “safe, attractive and convenient places to walk (and wheelchair roll).”

The CDC is off to a good start even before the public chimes in with its collective wisdom. The request for public comment laid out the scope of the problem:

Less than half (48 percent) of all U.S. adults meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines… and less than 3 in 10 high school students get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Only 13 percent of children walk or bike to school, compared with 44 percent a generation ago. More than a quarter of trips made by car are within one mile of home.

The CDC also highlights population groups with lower activity levels:

Physical activity levels decline with age; activity levels are lower in low-income communities and among racial/ ethnic minorities; and, in general, persons with disabilities are less active than those without disabilities.

The agency acknowledges that it’s not just an exercise promotion campaign – it’s about changing the built environment:

Causes for lower physical activity levels vary but may in part be due to a lack of available and/or accessible places for safe and enjoyable physical activity.

And the request for information calls attention to walking as a form of transportation, not just exercise:

Walking can be an enjoyable recreational, occupational or purposeful (e.g., for transportation) physical activity in which many Americans can engage. It can enhance health and quality of life and can also serve as a gateway to other enjoyable types of physical activity.

Having laid out the problem, the CDC is looking for help on the solution. They’re requesting information from the public on “evidence-based strategies” for breaking down barriers to walking and “community walkability” for people of all ages who don’t get enough exercise. They’re especially interested in helping people with developmental and chronic disease-related disabilities to be more active, and also “groups having health and physical activity disparities or lack resources and opportunities to be physically active” — racial and ethnic minorities and low-income communities.

You have until Tuesday, April 30 to submit a comment. (Instructions are available in the docket.) If you do, please copy it into the comment section here as well — we’d also like to hear new ideas for solving this persistent problem.

  • the barrier is laziness
    with the warm weather i plan to stop driving my youngest kid to daycare a few times a week and walk the 1.2 miles each way. i suggested it to another parent and she thought i was crazy

  • Daniel Winks

    But Alen, it might take you 7 minutes longer to get there! Though once you factor in the amount of time you spend at work to pay for the cost of driving that same distance, driving (city driving) isn’t even faster. Sure, you might spend 7 minutes more walking that spent driving, but then you need to work for an additional 10 minutes just to pay for the car trip, so the overall time spent for that “drive” is actually longer (and thus, the car is ‘slower’).

  • Jared Rodriguez

    1 mile of walking is nothing. Psychologically, though, 1 mile of walking on an arterial road in suburbia feels 4 times as long as walking 1 mile in New York City. That’s why people are lazy. Who wants to walk past strip malls and on arterial roads?

  • GuestCommenter

    Mode choice follows infrastructure.

  • Joe R.

    Not to mention time spent getting the car inspected or repaired, refueling it, looking for places to park it, going to court for traffic tickets, etc. If people added up the total hours working to pay for their car, plus the additional time for the things I mentioned, they might find they save lots of time walking or biking or taking public transit.

  • Joe R.

    Walking in suburbia is exceedingly boring. In fact, even driving through suburbia at 50 mph is exceedingly boring. It all looks the same, to the point you could drive 3 hours yet feel like you’ve never gone anywhere.

  • i haven’t had to repair a car for years

    inspection is quick during an oil change

    parking isn’t that big a deal outside of manhattan

    haven’t had a traffic ticket in 10 years

    i take transit most of the time. my wife used to drive to work 4 times a week but now its less. but on the weekends there are lots of places transit doesn’t go to or its more expensive to rely only on transit

  • Joe R.

    Transit choices would be better if fewer people drove. That’s the problem. It’s a chicken and egg thing. We can’t get fewer people driving until we have more transit choices, but we won’t get political support for more transit choices until fewer people drive. The only hope is to convince enough drivers that transit benefits them enough to help pay for it, even if they never use it, by making roads less congested.

  • even NYC it takes 2 hours or more to go point to point in some places. or 20 minutes driving. takes my wife 30 minutes to drive to work compared to a 3 hour transit commute to staten island.

    the street cleaning rules in NYC make it harder to leave your car at home as well. lots of residential buildings on queens blvd in queens with parking meters in front of them and limited parking without having to feed the meter.

  • you move to suburbia for the schools, not the views

  • Joe R.

    The transit system in NYC is largely set up for commuting from the outer boroughs to Manhattan, not going from one part of the outer boroughs to another. Unfortunately, we never built a subway to Staten Island. If we had, perhaps your wife’s commute time would have been comparable to driving, or at least not ridiculously longer.

    Bike travel times are comparable to driving in much of the city, so that’s an option for anyone who wants to use it. Owning a car in NYC in places where you have no off-street place to park it makes zero sense. I hear stories about people in Manhattan spending literally hours every week waiting to grab a spot on the other side of the street as the alternate side rules kick in. It’s their time to waste, but it seems to me like you could do something a lot more productive than sitting there waiting for a parking spot.

    Unfortunately, land use patterns are largely dictated by mode. Yes, getting around by public transit in the outer boroughs is often inconvenient. Then again, the land use patterns we see in the outer boroughs (and suburbs) never would have developed if people didn’t have access to automobiles. Don’t you think once fewer people drive we’ll see a lot more infill development right near train stations, and also perhaps more transit connectivity in the outer boroughs?

  • Joe R.

    Environment is part of child development. Despite the worse schools, city children might make up for it by living in a much more stimulating environment. Also, city schools are much improved compared to a decade ago while suburban schools are now experiencing some of the things formerly seen only in inner city schools. Things might be a wash in another decade.

    It also bears mentioning that school performance is largely related to the quality of parenting. This stacks the deck in favor of suburban schools, at least for now.

  • Children who walk or bike to school have higher test scores than those who are driven. A little exercise first thing in the morning turns out to be a very good thing cognitively.

  • The comment I sent in:

    To Improve Physical Activity for Health in the US

    The US this year will spend close to 20% of its GDP on health care, double what comparable countries spend, with markedly worse health results to show for it. Nationally our poor diet and sedentary lifestyle are bankrupting us as well as making us sick and unhappy. To promote the moderate amount of exercise necessary for human health is simple. Discourage car driving. In terms of public health, cars are the new cigarettes.

    Make walking and biking more direct and convenient than driving and always much cheaper. And don’t just focus on walking. Remember, for many people with disabilities, biking or adult triking is easier than walking. And for people with low incomes, a bicycle can provide enormous range and mobility at extremely modest cost.

    Close 25% of community roads at one end to cars while leaving them porous to bicyclists and pedestrians. Install on every street within a mile of a school separated bike lanes or reduce speed limits to 15 mph. (Physically enforce speed limits with speed humps.) Reward schools where more than 75% of students routinely walk or bike to school.

    Discourage car ownership. Stop subsidizing cars with cheap GMAC consumer car loans and preferential tax treatment for business vehicle purchases. Eliminate car commercials for the same reasons we eliminated cigarette commercials.

    Encourage housing near shops, jobs and transit instead of far-flung suburbs. No federally-subsidized housing loan to any house or property that has a walk score less than 50. Reduce on-street parking. Tax surface parking lots at a higher rate than buildings. End all new federally-funded road projects. Reward communities that have fewer vehicles than licensed drivers. Reward communities where every location can be reached either by a bike lane or a 15 mph street. Reward communities where more than 50% of the population bicycles at least 10 miles a week or walks at least 3 miles per week, or where more than 75% of all trips under one mile are by bike or by foot.

    Stop subsidizing gas and oil companies $4 billion/year. Implement a carbon deposit on all fossil fuels. (Refund all carbon deposits collected equally to all US taxpayers so that it is not a tax.) Implement a health tax on all diesel and gasoline to pay for the asthma, cancer and birth defects car exhaust causes.

    The US has a much higher pedestrian and bicyclist fatality rate than comparable countries. Make biking and walking safer with adequate bike lanes and sidewalks and by increasing caution among car drivers. Suspend licenses of reckless drivers at least 60 days. Revoke for life the license of any driver who hits a pedestrian or bicyclist unless it’s proven the pedestrian/bicyclist acted illegally. Raise the driving age to 18. Impound the cars of people who drive uninsured. (14% nationally.) Raise minimum insurance requirements for bodily injury to $50,000.

  • M.

    The surgeon-general should say that intensive surgery is required on our built environment – STAT! Our epidemiology is built into our urban (and not) layout.
    We perpetuate the folklore that in this country if an individual is not healthy/rich/likeable, etc. it’s their own fault. Only partly true.

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