Can we be physically active without walkable neighborhoods?

A year or so ago, public health advocates were trying to boost a campaign to convince every US resident to walk 10,000 steps. The reasons for this campaign are obvious:  too many Americans are overweight or obese, too many are physically inactive or not getting enough physical activity.  But how easy is it to walk 10,000 steps in a day?  Thanks to the people at Active Living Research, I have a pedometer which I used for a couple of months to monitor my walking behavior.

How much do people walk now?  I’ve heard estimates as low as a mean of a quarter mile a day, or about 500 steps at 2.5 feet per step.  This seems way too low even for US physical activity, so I suspect the number refers to walking outside the home (probably reported from the National Household Transportation Survey).  Let’s give Americans the benefit of the doubt and say they are currently walking a mean of 2 miles a day, or about 4000 steps.  How are they going to get those other 6000 steps? This is about 3 miles, or given that people walk about 3 miles per hour, it means that they will need to spend an extra hour a day walking.  How is that going to happen?

Unfortunately, it isn’t going to happen at home, work or school. Most people live pretty sedentary lives and even if they boosted their physical activity while at these places by 25% – a huge increase, they would still be short about 5000 steps or 2.5 miles.  They will have only shaved 10 minutes off of that hour walking requirement.  Can they make it up after school/work? Well that’s an hour away from dinner, family time, sleeping, playing with the kids, updating their facebook accounts, watching television etc.  Not likely.

So they can only meet these extra steps by walking someplace, either to or from work/school or to and from some other destination.  And that is only going to be possible if their homes are within walking distance of suitable destinations and the streets are safe for walking.  I know this from my own experience with a pedometer. I only hit 10,000 steps on days I walked to work or walked around shopping or to my garden plot.  On days I had to drive, I did not make my walking quota.

This is an example of how well meaning health advocates can propose ineffective solutions when they ignore the proper level (looking at the individual level instead of the neighborhood level) at which these problems occur.  There may well be some physically inactive people who could walk to work/school or shop but don’t- these people could benefit from a campaign like the 10,000 steps program; but their number is most likely dwarfed by those who can’t walk to work/school because their worksite/school is too far to walk or it’s not safe to walk to these destinations.  There may be too much traffic, no sidewalks, an unsafe area, no street lights, etc.  The 10,000 program cannot motivate these people.  The correct level of action is to address the neighborhood, community, or metropolitan area environment.  This is where the problem originates and sets off a chain of causality that impacts people’s health.  Therefore this is where the problem needs to be addressed.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.