U.S. Surgeon General Announces Plan to Promote Walkable Communities

September 22, 2015|5:03 p.m.| Jane Esworthy

Only half of American adults get enough physical activity to reduce their risk of chronic disease, and only a quarter of high school students get the recommended amount. Physical inactivity contributes to heart and lung disease, diabetes, and cancer, which account for 86 percent of the United States’ healthcare costs. According to the Call to Action Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities, chronic disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and a major contributor to years lived with a disability. In 2012, almost 50 percent of U.S. adults were living with a chronic disease, and of this group, approximately 60 million lived with two or more chronic diseases.

To address the major public health challenges that exist due to physical inactivity, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a call to action earlier this month urging individuals of all ages to make walking a priority in their lives and discussing the health benefits of walking. Murthy aims to increase walking across the United States by calling for improved access to safe and convenient places to walk and wheelchair roll and creating a culture that supports these activities for people of all ages and abilities.

The Call to Action has established five goals in its effort to promote walking and walkable communities in the United States:

  • Make walking a national priority.
  • Design communities that make it safe and easy to walk for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Promote programs and policies to support walking where people live, learn, work, and play.
  • Provide information to encourage walking and improve walkability.
  • Fill surveillance, research, and evaluation gaps related to walking and walkability. 

Unfortunately, many communities lack safe and convenient places for individuals to walk. A 2013 U.S. Department of Transportation study found that 3 out of every 10 Americans reported having no sidewalks in their neighborhoods, and in many communities violence—and the perception of violence—are a barrier to walking.

“Everyone deserves to have a safe place to walk or wheelchair roll. But in too many of our communities, that is not the reality,” says Murthy. “We know that an active lifestyle is critical to achieving good overall health. And walking is a simple, effective, and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives. That is why we need to step it up as a country ensuring that everyone can choose to walk in their own communities.”

Walking and physical activity has many health benefits and can help improve mental health, strengthen bones and muscles, prevent weight gain, and reduce risk of disease and cancer. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination, each week, and that children and adolescents be active for at least 60 minutes every day.

State health agencies can play a critical role in making walking more accessible by using a Health in All Policies approach to work with other stakeholders to design safe, easy, and attractive places to walk, promoting community and employer-based walking programs, educating residents about the importance of physical activity, and helping to fill data gaps and improve the quality and consistency of surveillance data collected about walking and walkability.

Visit ASTHO’s Health in All Policies web page and check out our Health in All Policies Transportation Policy Guides to learn more about how to improve access to active transportation options in your state.