The U.S. surgeon general wants Americans to step it up.
The government’s top medical officer has launched a campaign – Step It Up! – to promote physical activity and walkable communities as a way to improve health and well-being.
“We know that an active lifestyle is critical to achieving good overall health,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a September 2015 press release. “And walking is a simple, effective and affordable way to build physical activity into our lives.”
The campaign calls on community leaders and planners to add sidewalks, crosswalks, green space and street lighting to encourage people to make walking a priority. It cites a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation that found that three out of 10 Americans have no access to sidewalks in their neighborhoods.
The health benefits of physical activity are well-known. Regular exercise has been shown to help combat high blood pressure and weight gain, and protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and some cancers. Among children and teenagers, physical activity can improve bones and muscles, lower anxiety and depression and boost academic performance.
Guidelines established by the federal Department of Health and Human Services recommend that adults get at least 2½ hours of moderate activity a week and children get at least an hour of exercise daily. People with disabilities should engage in physical activity that aligns with their abilities.
Even with so many potential benefits, only about a half of adults and a quarter of high school students are getting enough exercise, according to the Surgeon General’s office. Why? Some people point to not having enough time. Others say their communities lack sidewalks, making streets too dangerous.
The Surgeon General’s office is targeting walking because it’s relatively easy, has a low risk of injury and doesn’t require any skills or equipment. It’s also common: In 2010, more than 60% percent of adults reported walking at least 10 minutes in the prior week.
The Step It Up campaign comes on the heels of new research showing that a walk in the woods may be more effective than a walk in a city when it comes to boosting mental health.
The Stanford University study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people who walked for 90 minutes through a grassland area were less likely to have risk factors for depression and other mental illnesses than those who walked in a busy, urban area.