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The Surgeon General’s Call: Get on your Feet or Wheels!

By Phil Bors on September 11th, 2015

This week, our nation’s top physician and Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, released his first national Call to Action, Step it Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities. I hope that this significant, science-based document will accelerate two of the simplest activities we can do to improve our health—walking and wheelchair rolling.

The nation’s first Surgeon General’s report, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, is credited with jumpstarting a decline in adult cigarette smoking, from 43% in 1965 to 18% in 2014. Its message spurred health advocates, business leaders and policy makers to enact regulations, policies and programs to help current smokers quit and to prevent young people from starting.

Similarly, the 1996 release of Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General documented the importance of routine physical activity. While previous guidelines tended to highlight vigorous exercise, this report listed moderate activities, like walking, as viable ways to become healthier, putting exercise within reach of even sedentary people. The legitimacy of walking as a public health topic in its own right recast neighborhoods as places to be active, and was a wake-up call to public health advocates and professionals to help shape our built environments.

If you couldn’t tune in to Wednesday’s Step it Up! launch webcast because you were leading a walking meeting, here’s what you missed. The hour-long event featured many hopeful voices, and I am proud to know several of the leaders on stage sharing their energy and wisdom, such as Shavon Arline-Bradley and Tyler Norris, a founding advisory board member for Active Living By Design (ALBD). Mr. Norris quoted the late, great Deb Hubsmith, “Walking is a right…everywhere.” He went on to encourage us to “Lead from where we stand, engage in our democracy and get involved in initiatives that work, like Vision Zero and the Vision Zero Network.”

Vanessa Garrison, Co-Founder of GirlTrek, a national movement that inspires and supports thousands of black women and girls to get active through walking, talked about “walkability” as a civil rights issue. She said, “Walking is a powerful healing tradition. It has the ability to transform lives, heal families and bring people together. Right now, as we sit in this room, a woman facing tremendous odds is still lacing up her sneakers … and walking out of her front door in the direction of her very best life.”

Likewise, Juliette Rizzo, Deputy Director of Special Projects, Partnerships and Events at the U.S. Department of Education, described her own experience in a wheelchair and the importance of “rollability.” Ms. Rizzo challenges us against thinking too narrowly about pedestrians. “I am moving and shifting my body weight continuously around turns and down paths. This is how I walk.”

Now what? Use the new Call to Action and resources from ALBD (select Areas of Focus > Active transportation, bicycling and walking) for data, case examples and inspiration. We can all act from where we are by:

  • Walking whenever possible, by ourselves and with others, instead of sitting. Dr. Murthy and his team even put together a playlist if you like to walk with music.
  • Pushing for greater safety, walkability and equity in our communities by speaking up at city council and planning commission meetings and encouraging others to do the same.
  • Connecting with others who are part of the walkability movement. America Walks is a perfect platform for meeting new peers, learning practical steps and getting motivated. Check out their upcoming webinar on September 15th and the National Walking Summit on October 28-30 in Washington, D.C.

In 2010, only 62% of adults reported walking 10 minutes or more in the past week for transportation or leisure. The numbers decline for Non-Hispanic Blacks, older adults and people with less education. What will we be able to say about these numbers in 50 years? Now is the time to get started.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time