Putting walkability to the test

Ashby Wolfe MD, MPP, MPH

I recently returned from a very interesting few months working in the hospital and traveling to various conferences around the country. The topic at many of these meetings was, of course, health reform. It is no secret that I am a big fan of much of what is in the legislation, especially the emphasis on preventive health care, and funding for primary care to assist patient in the treatment of chronic disease.

Part of the reason I am so excited about the national push for prevention is because our country continues to move slowly towards becoming the most overweight nation in the world. Our rates of heart disease and diabetes are sky rocketing. It is my hope that funding for preventive care can help get our health back on track.

However, it is going to take more than national legislation to reduce our collective body mass index. This was never so apparent to me as when I recently attended a two-day conference in Washington DC. I began my trip reading more about the Let’s Move Campaign, an ambitious federal program aimed to reduce childhood obesity by promoting physical activity and healthful eating in schools. Motivated by the opportunity to meet some of the people behind the creation of the program, I eagerly reviewed the action plan. Seeing the words “food desert” and “complete street” in a national policy brief was exciting – especially since many dedicated community members, academic researchers and patient advocates have been using this terminology for decades without much national attention.

I was properly motivated as I deplaned in DC, and being a fan of public transportation, I decided to do as much walking as possible in our nation’s capital and really embrace the spirit of Let’s Move. I decided to keep track of my efforts and see just how easy it was to stay physically active while on a highly scheduled two-day business trip.

I had no trouble walking through National Airport, and made it to the METRO train (conveniently located across the street from the airport) without incident. One fifteen minute ride later and I had arrived in Alexandria, Virginia. I had just a short 10 minute walk to the place I would be staying, but this walk proved rather difficult in a business suit and suitcase. A sidewalk was available for the first three minutes of my walk, but then ended abruptly at the busiest intersection in town, without a cross walk in sight. Undeterred, I continued along the safest side of the street, half in grass and half in dirt. I eventually made it to another section of sidewalk, which then took me to the driveway of my destination.

The remainder of my trip was spent mostly in the downtown areas of DC near the Capitol, where the METRO stops regularly and sidewalks are plentiful. However, my return to the airport again involved a walk along a rather dismal stretch of road that only the bravest of souls would consider traveling with a suitcase. Needless to say, a street complete with sidewalk and bike lane is always welcome.

As the country continues to focus on prevention as a key part of our improved health, many local groups are starting to discuss complete streets, and smarter growth development policies, to make communities safe for outside activity that is not dependent on the automobile.

For health professionals like me, who tend to recommend walking as a key activity to promote weight loss and healthy lifestyles, the importance of campaigns like Let’s Move and community coalitions supporting smart growth cannot be overstated.

If you are curious, you can test the “walkability” of your city or town and find handy routes to exercise or explore. Consider supporting local community efforts; many cities are developing tools for smart growth advocacy to support such change. You can also visit the Let’s Move website (see link above) to see how you and your community can get involved.

Or, do your own walkability test and see for yourself!

Ashby Wolfe is a resident physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She holds an MD as well as masters degrees in public policy and public health. She blogs at www.ashbywolfe.com and is a guest blogger for calhealthreport.org on issues of family medicine and community health. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of UC Davis or calhealthreport.org

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