For thousands of years, to get from Point A to Point B, most people had no choice but to start walking. Some people had access to horses and horse-drawn carriages, but not until the rise of the automobile in the first half of the twentieth century did walking lose its status in some societies as the most popular way to get where you’re going. This change to a “car culture” definitely made it faster and easier to get from place to place, but it also took away a significant source of physical activity for many people. While many factors contribute to our country’s obesity epidemic, the drastic decrease in steps Americans take each day has played a part. In addition to reduced walking in our communities, the large amount of car traffic contributes to air pollution.
Recognizing the vital role walking can play in improving people’s health, the Surgeon General’s office created “Step It Up!” and issued a call to action last year to promote walking and communities designed to be walkable.
That call to action is needed here in Thurston County as well. Cities in the county have largely been built during the era of increasing reliance on automobiles – they are spread out over a large area and tend to have single-use zones of land use that make it more difficult to use other forms of transportation. The rest of the county is very rural, meaning that walking as a mode of transportation in those areas is also difficult. Thurston Thrives, our community’s effort to improve health for all residents, has an action area (Community Design) that is focused on supporting a shift back to walkable ways of designing communities and encouraging the daily, moderate physical activity of walking.
At least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is recommended for adults to stay healthy (1 hour daily for kids). Even in a community like ours, there are many ways to incorporate walking into your daily routine. Whenever you have the chance to take a more active form of transportation than driving alone, take it! Walking, bicycling or taking the bus not only increase your physical activity, they help reduce air pollution. If you are driving to your destination, choose a parking space far from the store entrance. If you live or work in a multistory building, take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you have a job that requires you to spend time in meetings, ask your colleagues to head outside for a “moving meeting.” Albert Einstein believed that the brain worked best at three miles per hour (the speed of a brisk walk), and scientific studies have shown a relationship between walking and better performance on tests that measure memory, attention, and creativity. You’ll find that in addition to the health benefits of getting sunlight, fresh air, and physical activity, your meetings might be more efficient, productive, and enjoyable as well.
Another way to make walking a regular part of your life is to go on a walk with your family after dinner each night. While strenuous physical activities can interfere with digestion and cause cramps, mild exercise like walking actually assists your body in digesting your meal and can improve blood sugar levels too. Perhaps even more importantly, a nightly stroll can provide busy families with much-needed bonding time at the end of each day, improving the mental and emotional health of parents and children alike. Joining or forming a neighborhood walking club is also an option, and can be a great way to get to know your neighbors better and create stronger social ties within your local community. Since the sun still sets pretty early this time of year, be sure to wear reflective clothing or carry a flashlight in order to be visible to drivers after dark.
If you’re ready to step it up, check out the Thurston Regional Planning Council’s “Here to There” website, which provides walking maps and other resources that will make it easier than ever to add more walking to your life. If you want to be part of the effort to make our communities more walkable, or address clean air issues, get involved with the Community Design or Environment action teams. Together, with each step we take, we can make Thurston County a healthier place for everyone!