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The U.S. Surgeon General Wants Everyone In America To Have A Safe Place To Walk

Dr. Vivek Murthy CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK
Dr. Vivek Murthy CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy gave a call to action this week, encouraging Americans to walk more and pushing local communities to improve conditions that support a sedentary lifestyle. His initiative, titled “Step It Up!” follows other governmental efforts to promote healthy lifestyle choices, including that of U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention recommends that adults walk for at least 150 minutes every week. Walking and moderate physical activity reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and other chronic illnesses while enhancing mental and physical health. Walkers also shave off the pounds more easily.

However, people living in major cities and rural areas — especially elderly Americans and wheelchair users — may have difficulty heeding Murthy’s words. Barriers to navigating safely on foot often include crime, poorly marked bike lanes and crosswalks, sidewalks broken by pushed up tree roots, and poor lighting on some streets. In some cases, the lack of sidewalks near strip malls and other meeting places also discourages walking.

Murthy wants to address those issues through his “Step It Up!” campaign. In a report he released on Wednesday, Murthy said that would require collaboration between transportation officials and city planners, parks and schools, business and health officials, and community members. “I firmly believe that everybody in America needs a safe place to walk or to wheelchair roll,” Murthy told the Associated Press. “For too many of our communities, that is not the reality right now.”

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Local and state leaders who want to get in action can look to ongoing projects across the country for inspiration. For instance, the New York Restoration Project announced plans to revitalize the Mott Haven and Port Morris neighborhoods of South Bronx in July. Once those plans to come to fruition, those communities will have visible street crossings, new bike and pedestrian routes, and improved access to a nearby waterfront. For more than 30 years, lawmakers and city planners in Alexandria, Virginia have rolled out infrastructure changes — including a grid of walkable streets and mix of residential, civic, and business activity — that encourage residents of the D.C. suburb to travel on foot.

On Wednesday, health advocates extolled Murthy’s new campaign and celebrated the possibility of changes coming to local communities.

Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a nonprofit network of public health organizations that supported Murthy’s call to action, called it an “official recognition from our nation’s doctor that this is a critical health issue that needs to be addressed.” In his statement, Bricker also acknowledged the push for walkable communities among millennials, a demographic that’s leaving the suburbs in droves for the confines of the city where amenities are more accessible on foot.

Murthy’s new project may also resonate with older residents, some of whom often feel that lawmakers and city planners have disregarded their interests in favor of those of their younger neighbors. In recent years, jurisdictions across the country and around the world have worked to be recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “Age-Friendly City.” Requirements to receive that designation include the presence of green spaces and outdoor seating, pedestrian crossings for people with special needs, and well-maintained sidewalks.

Last year, officials in Washington, D.C. toured neighborhoods with the elderly who pointed out deficiencies as part of the city’s Age-Friendly DC Initiative, an effort to be recognized by WHO.

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“Cities worldwide are transforming to the point where the elderly represent 20 percent of the population,” Gail Kohn, coordinator of the Age-Friendly DC Initiative, told the Washington Informer. “Even though D.C.’s not there yet, these efforts encourage us to take better care of our seniors. Many young people also like this city and will stay here when their hair turns gray,” said Kohn.

Murthy’s “Step It Up!” initiative aligns with his philosophy that the American health care system must work to prevent, not mitigate, critical illness — a line of thinking that has become more common in the public health space. His other priorities include tobacco- and drug-free living, mental and emotional well-being, and healthy eating. Touting these aspects of health, Murphy told the Washington Post earlier this year, means looking beyond hospitals and clinics to find opportunities to improve overall quality of life.

“A prevention-based society is one in which every institution, whether they’re a hospital or a clinic, or a school, an employer or a faith-based organization, recognizes and embraces the role that it can play in improving health,” Murthy said.

“The truth is, that while hospitals and clinics are traditional health care players, we know that the choices that people make in their lives about what they eat, about how active they are, about whether they ultimately decide to try a cigarette or to use drugs, those decisions are often influenced by factors far outside the hospital or the clinic.”