“Walk more.” That’s the simple health advice pushed by studies that consistently prove walking is one of the most important ways to stay active, manage your weight, and protect against health conditions. Most recently, researchers found that walking lowers stroke risk for women, and last month, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, declared that she and the CDC are working on a special report to serve as a “call to action on walking.” And that’s good news, because compared to spin classes, high-intensity interval training, and all the other popular ways of getting in shape, walking is one of the easiest and most accessible, right? Wrong.
“We want to lend the voice of the Office of the Surgeon General to this particular physical activity,”Benjamin said in a meeting with other walking advocates. “It’s easy to do, anyone can do it and it’s fun.” But she admits that her mission to jump-start a national campaign for walking will realistically take about 18 months to get up and running, and that isn’t just a reflection on bureaucracy. Walking is physically accessible to most people, yes. But realistically, a lot of people are up against cities that encourage driving everywhere, and jobs that discourage regular walking.
Take it from me: Normally, I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan; one of the best cities for walking in the U.S. But my job requires sitting at a desk for nine hours a day, plus at least 1.5 hours more of sitting (or standing) on public transportation. More often than not, my day doesn’t involve much walking unless I spend longer commuting (by spending more time on foot than on subway) or incorporate a walk or run purely for exercise.
And right now, I’m spending some time in Los Angeles. In a city where cars are king, I’m relatively lucky: I’m subletting an apartment within walking distance (0.8 miles away) of work. But using a car to get around puts the reality of most Americans into stark perspective: In many cities and neighborhoods, you just don’t walk. Physical ability is beside the point; for many of us, the biggest obstacle is that walking just isn’t part of our culture. Neighborhoods aren’t designed so that everyday errands (like grocery shopping and taking kids to school) are within walking distance of residents’ homes (or even each other). And in many places, there are so few people outside of buildings and cars that walking just doesn’t feel safe.
But that can and should change. The number of calories burned walking is only
1. Park strategically - If you drive to work, pick up your kids in an SUV, or head to the grocery store on wheels, just park further away from the door. Parking lot status quo involves fighting for spots closest to the door, but if you’re driving to several destinations a day, and walking several meters between your car and the door every time, it adds up. And you’ll spend a lot less time sitting in your car waiting for a spot to open up.
2. Go for a smoke-free “smoke break” - Sitting has basically been declared the smoking of our generation. Extended periods of sitting lower our metabolism and heighten our risk of things like stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. This is almost making smoke breaks look good. Instead of a single, long lunch break in the middle of your day, consider cutting it short, and spending the rest of your free time taking short walking breaks in your building or neighborhood. Just getting up and walking around the block a couple times a day could give your health a huge boost. (And if that’s not enough, productivity experts agree that stepping away from work more often is a good thing.)
3. Drink more water - Get a small water bottle to keep at your desk, and drink up. You’ll get up to walk every time you fill the bottle and empty your bladder, which doesn’t just get you walking; it helps you break up a sedentary day at the office. Plus, drinking more water is a health tip in and of itself; why wouldn’t you do this?
4. Get your own damn beer - When you’re parked on the couch, watching Lance Armstrong confess his sins to Oprah, it’s easy to ask someone else to grab you that [water, beer, snack, fill-in-the-blank]. Do it yourself.
5. Make coffee dates play dates - Happy hour, coffee dates and brunch are all great ways to catch up with friends and decompress, but try taking your beverage of choice on the road. Head to a park or trail (because chances are, you’re probably driving to that bar or Starbucks anyway, right?) and go for an easy walk with friends; you’ll get to chat just as much, and you’ll feel way better afterwards.
6. Change your area code - If you can’t walk to work, stores, bars, friends’ places, or even a park, it might be worth living somewhere else. Moving to a more walkable neighborhood might be more expensive (it usually is), but keep in mind that you’ll save more gas money the less you have to get in your car. And if it still sounds extreme, keep in mind: So are the health benefits of walking.
7. Get a dog - Dog owners are more active overall than non-dog owners, and especially if you live in a place where walking just isn’t a practical part of your commute, a new best friend is a really good way to force yourself out of the house. Studies have even shown that people are more likely to go for a walk with a canine pal than a human, so if you like pets, this is a really good reason to take the plunge.
8. Get some a fitness monitor - It doesn’t have to be high-tech or expensive, just get a pedometer or fitness monitor that you can use every day. I use a Nike FuelBand, and it’s surprisingly motivating: It helps me set a daily goal, and it forces me to be honest with myself on days when I haven’t done much moving. My .8 mile walk to work can sound like a lot of exercise when I want it to…but my FuelBand is a good reminder that I need more.
Photo: flickr user Asela