U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will call Wednesday for a national campaign centered on walking, an effort he said is intended to combat chronic disease and obesity, and to surmount obstacles that stand in the way of simply taking a walk.
Murthy said the government will partner with schools, nonprofit organizations and the private sector to promote walking at home, at school and in the workplace.
His “call to action” seeks to make walking a national priority, promote development of communities where it is safe and easy to walk, develop walking programs, and conduct research on walking.
“We’ve really lost touch with physical activity,” Murthy said in an interview. “It has slowly vanished from the workplace. More and more kids in school don’t have time to exercise.” The time has come, he said, to build activity back into our daily lives, and walking is one of the easiest and most available forms for most people.
In 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy wrote an open letter to the public, titled “The Soft American,” revealing his concern over Americans’ loss of “physical vigor.” Two years later, he challenged the Marines to hike 50 miles in 20 hours, an order that gave rise to a fad of 50-mile hikes that largely faded after he was assassinated. Fifty-five years later, obesity rates have more than doubled.
Research shows that one of every two U.S. adults is living with a chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease.
As little as 150 minutes per week of brisk walking or other moderately intense physical exercise can reduce the risk factors that lead to such disease, including high blood pressure and obesity. Walking also is associated with a higher quality of life and improved mental and emotional health. But only about half of U.S. adults get that much exercise.
Walking, Murthy said, has a lower risk of injury than high-intensity exercise and can be fit into people’s daily lives. In 2010, more than 60 percent of adults said they had walked 10 minutes or more for transportation or pleasure during the previous week, according to Murthy. Walking also builds social connections among community members, he said.
The surgeon general said he has been holding more “walking meetings,” taking the stairs and building in activity breaks at work. At home, he said, he has been using community walks to catch up with his wife, rather than having conversations at home on the couch.
But many communities are unsafe for walkers, because of crime, heavy traffic or road design that is poorly suited to pedestrians, he acknowledged. Communities will have to be planned so that walkers and people in wheelchairs can find safe, accessible places to exercise.
“I firmly believe that every person in America deserves a safe place to walk or to wheelchair-roll,” he said.
Ultimately, Murthy said, he hopes to expand an emphasis on fitness to other activities, such as strength-training. “I see walking as a starting point, a gateway to other activities,” he said.