Improve Health? Take a Hike
The simple activity of walking provides a path to well-being and creates a safer, happier community, all at a bargain.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
By Thomas Hylton
Three years ago, our non-profit hospital in Pottstown, where I live, was sold to a national health care chain. The proceeds were used to set up a health and wellness foundation that will distribute about $2 million in grants annually "to provide opportunities for our community to enthusiastically embrace a healthier lifestyle."
Fortunately, traditional towns like Pottstown already have the best infrastructure for promoting healthy lifestyles that civilization has ever devised: the sidewalk.
Walking is the simplest and easiest form of exercise there is. It doesn´t take any special equipment. You can do it at any age, even if you´ve been sedentary all your life. And if you´re fortunate enough to live in a town where sidewalks are everywhere, like Pottstown, you can walk any time, any place, as much or as little as you want.
Walking can prevent obesity and reduce blood pressure. It lowers the risk of heart disease and chronic ailments like diabetes and osteoporosis. It can even improve mental health: Studies show people who walk a lot are less likely to become depressed.
Moreover, walking makes communities safer. The more law-abiding citizens who frequent our sidewalks, the less likely crime and disorder are to occur.
I never thought seriously about walking until I was 28, when I read a book called "Aerobics" by an Air Force physician named Kenneth Cooper. My father had died of a heart attack at 40, and I hoped exercise could help me avoid his fate. Cooper´s book asserted you could develop a superb cardiovascular system just by walking, and it provided a point system to measure your progress. Walk a mile in 15 to 20 minutes, Cooper said, and give yourself a point. Walk a mile in 15 minutes or less, and give yourself two points. Cooper advised that earning 30 points, spread out over a week, would not only cultivate a healthy heart, but help refresh you by day and relax you at night.
I tried his system and soon found myself walking about five miles a day. I´ve kept it up for 30 years. Parts of my town that once seemed far distant now seem nearby. Moreover, I now experience my town at a much closer and personal level than I ever did by car - really seeing people, buildings, and yards that, from behind a windshield, are just a blur.
Most important, I don´t have to set aside a special time to exercise. Because I live in a traditional town, I can walk to many of my destinations: friends´ houses, the post office, even our local Wal-Mart. This aspect of town life has increasingly captured the attention of public health officials: People are far more likely to exercise regularly, they say, if we can integrate it into our everyday lives. And we don´t need to walk five miles or even one mile to gain significant health benefits. The Surgeon General has determined people can profit from even short stints of walking accumulated during the day.
I can´t think of anything that would do more to improve the social, economic, and environmental health of our communities than making them 100 percent walkable. In post-war communities, that means retrofitting streets with sidewalks and biking trails. Happily, PennDOT has a specific grant program for municipalities seeking infrastructure improvements to create safe routes to walk and to slow down cars with "traffic calming" devices like speed bumps and medians.
Of course, we need to change our culture as much as our infrastructure. In Pottstown, for example, although our school district is just 5 square miles, we spend more than $1 million annually on busing. If we realigned our elementary school attendance boundaries, we could eliminate the busing of up to 500 students.
With just part of the money saved, we could greatly expand our roster of adult crossing guards. While buses pollute our air and waste energy, crossing guards create more "eyes on the street" and strengthen the neighborhood fabric. Many of our crossing guards are elderly residents whose twice-daily job gives them needed income and a valuable role to play in the community. And our children are bolstered by the friendly and reassuring presence of caring adults on their journey to school.
A healthy lifestyle may be an individual decision, but we can come together as a community to foster our collective best behavior.