An Easy Way to Get Enough Exercise: Take a Walk

Good news: 6 in 10 Americans are now walking every week, and they're three times more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than people who don't take strolls

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If the government’s recommendation of at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week sounds daunting to you, join the club. Fewer than half of Americans meet the government’s physical activity goal, and about one-third report getting no exercise at all.

But new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that may be changing. In a new report, the CDC finds that more and more Americans are taking up the simple act of walking for exercise, and that those who get out there and walk are about three times more likely to meet physical activity requirements.

The report looked at data from the 2005 and 2010 National Health Interview Surveys (NHIS), which included nearly 50,000 adults in total. The data showed that in 2010, 62% of adults reported walking for at least 10 minutes at least once the past week, up from 56% in 2005. Increases in walking were seen among nearly all subgroups of participants surveyed, regardless of age, gender, weight, race, geography or overall health. Even among adults who needed walking assistance, 1 in 4 reported walking.

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“Fifteen million more Americans were walking in 2010 compared to 2005,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director, in a conference call, emphasizing the remarkable benefits of a walk. “There really is no single drug that can do anything like what regular physical activity does and that’s why [walking] really is a wonder drug. It makes you healthier and happier. Even if you don’t lose any weight, getting regular exercise will decrease your risk of getting sick, getting diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and many other conditions.”

In the survey, walkers were defined as those who engaged in at least one bout of walking in the previous week for at least 10 minutes; the walk could have been undertaken for any reason, such as transportation, fun, walking the dog, relaxation or exercise. Americans living in the West and Northeast logged the most walks, but Southerners made the most strides in terms of increasing their walking prevalence, with 49% reporting walking in 2005, compared with 57% in 2010.

More adults with arthritis and hypertension also reported walking, which is good news, since physical activity can alleviate symptoms associated with both diseases.

“Walking is the easiest, most assessable and most popular way Americans get exercise,” said Frieden. “It doesn’t cost anything, you don’t have to join a gym or change your clothes before and after. It’s something virtually anyone can do.”

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What’s more, people who walk are significantly more likely — three times more likely on average, in fact — to meet the government’s physical activity recommendations. Overall, the survey data showed, more Americans were meeting that goal in 2010 (48%) than in 2005 (41%), and more walkers (60%) than non-walkers (30%) met the guideline. The more people walked, the more likely they were to meet the exercise requirement: compared with non-walkers, those who walked 10-19 minutes a week were 34% more likely to meet the standard; those walking 20-29 minutes a week were 52% more likely; people who walked 30-59 minutes a week were 80% more likely; and those walking more than hour a week were nearly four times more likely to get the minimum amount of recommended exercise.

The new numbers are encouraging, but health officials say there’s still room for improvement. For one thing, although the prevalence of walking increased, the amount of time walkers spent walking dropped off, from about 15 minutes a day in 2005 to 13 minutes a day in 2010.

“People need more safe and convenient places to walk,” said Dr. Joan M. Dorn, branch chief of the physical activity and health branch in CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, in a statement. “People walk more where they feel protected from traffic and safe from crime. Communities can be designed or improved to make it easier for people to walk to the places they need and want to go.

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Frieden agreed, noting that the creation of more walker-friendly venues can help encourage more Americans to take up the activity. In the report, the CDC offers recommendations for improving walking spaces:

  • State and local governments can consider joint-use agreements to allow community use of school tracks or gyms during non-school hours
  • Employers can create walking paths around or near the workplace and promote them with signs and route maps
  • Citizens can participate in local planning efforts to improve street lighting and landscaping, increase safety of street crossing and use of traffic-slowing features like speed bumps
  • Building and zoning codes can allow for businesses and residences to be built close together to encourage walking, and urban design policies should accommodate streets with sidewalks and bike lanes that enable safe access for everyone, including public-transportation riders, bicyclists, pedestrians and people with disabilities

Joining a walking group yourself or making walking safer for others by driving the speed limit and honoring pedestrians’ right-of-way are some of the recommended ways Americans can help incorporate the benefits of walking into daily life.

“Do something you enjoy, or do something you need to do like walking to work or walk to the store. You have to make it part of your routine,” said Frieden. “We see this as a great beginning with even more progress in the future as more people pick up walking and those who already walk do it more.”

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