Every journey starts and ends with putting one foot in front of the other. Walking: a simple yet affordable and effective tool to good health. As a public health educator and wellness advocate, it is my job to tout the many benefits walking can have on one’s health.
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Studies continue to show regular exercise, particularly walking, dramatically lowers your risk for heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes and weight-related health issues. So I’m often dumbfounded on why more people don’t make walking a routine part of their day. Isn’t death and disease scary enough to motivate one to start exercising? Apparently not, since less than 50% of Iowans report achieving the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity each week.1
So if death isn’t going to scare someone into walking and taking care of their health, what will? Well, at Public Health, our new focus is shifting away from classroom education, blood screenings, scary health statistics and other programmatic efforts. Today, we’re focusing on policies and built environment changes that will naturally nudge people to be healthier, with little to no effort on their part to engage in healthy behaviors. How are we doing this you might ask? Have you observed more sidewalk programs and bike trails popping up in Iowa communities? Do you notice new offices and commercial storefronts moving their parking lots to the rear of the buildings? Have bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalks started to take over your streets? Are community gardens a popular neighborhood amenity? Has your local grocery store starting labeling “local foods” throughout the produce section? Chances are if you live in Iowa, a handful of these strategies are being implemented in your community. But why? Because health professionals are starting to realize that just telling you to move more and eat better do not seem to be working, so we’ve decided to make eating healthy and moving more a natural part of your day. If there’s a sidewalk in your neighborhood, you’re more likely to meet the US Surgeon General’s recommendation for physical activity.2 If you live near a community garden, you are more likely to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables. If the parking lot is not in front of the store entrance, you’ll automatically be getting in extra walking steps. Small systematic and environmental changes can subconsciously cause you to participate in a healthy behavior, without health professionals having to nag you with all our scary health stats.
Locally, I can see the effects of policy and design changes taking root in my community. Our city recently passed a complete streets policy and adopted a pedestrian and bicycle master plan, detailing new bike trails and sidewalk networks. Some communities are closing off streets from motorized traffic, and designating it strictly for foot traffic, providing not only a health boost, but an economic boost as well. A small library even pasted each page of a children’s book on different posts all a walking path from the library to the elementary school. What creative ways to encourage physical activity, particularly walking. Let’s hope your next step will start a new and healthy chapter in your life!
Kelli Gerdes, EP-C
Health Promotion Manager
Cerro Gordo County Department of Public Health
1CDC. BRFSS Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System: Prevalence and Trend Data–Physical Activity, U.S. Physical Activity Trends by State 2009–2010. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/brfss/
2 Eyler, A.A., Brownson, R.C., Bacak, S.J., & Housemann, R.A. (2003). The epidemiology of walking for physical activity in the United States. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 35(9), 1529-1536.