Parks and recreation professionals always have health and wellness on the brain, but sometimes the most obvious forms of exercise can get short shrift in favor of shiny new equipment or the latest fitness craze. Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity — regardless of ability level, age or socioeconomic status — everyone can get up and take a walk.
Walking was surely top of mind for attendees of this year’s Annual Conference, as our sprawling host site at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas required a great deal of pedestrian travel to get from place to place. Our special Opening General Session guest speaker, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, focused his entire address on the benefits of walking, why this activity is vital to fighting preventable chronic disease and improving overall wellness, and how parks and recreation fill an essential role in its promotion.
Murthy’s address came quickly on the heels of his September 9 Step It Up! call to action, which implores more Americans to be physically active through walking. Murthy noted the natural connection between walking and parks — “Parks and recreation are the centers of our communities,” he said during the September 15 Opening General Session. “Parks and recreation centers are also centers of health that help build a foundation for a healthier life.” In light of this, Murthy extended his hand to the field of parks and recreation as a partner in public health.
Such outspoken, high-level support bolsters the case for integrating multimodal transportation into our cities. It underlines the need for fully funded departments of parks and recreation, which are uniquely positioned in the community to promote healthy activities like walking. It also encourages us, as park and recreation professionals, to break out of our silos and seek partnerships with healthcare organizations that can provide ancillary resources like BMI testing and blood pressure monitoring as we assist our patrons in weaving walking into their daily lives.
“The requests of my office are simple,” Murthy said. “We want to see more people commit to walking and healthy living. [The work of park and recreation professionals] in neighborhoods help make our communities more amenable to physical activity…We agree that when people have access to parks and green spaces, they lead healthier lives. That’s why, more than ever, we need parks and we need them now.”
The Step It Up! call to action lists five goals to promote walking and walkable communities:
Goal 1: Make walking a national priority
- Encourage people to promote walking and make their communities more walkable.
- Create a walking movement to make walking and walkability a national priority.
Goal 2: Design communities that make it safe and easy to walk for people of all ages and abilities
- Design and maintain streets and sidewalks so that walking is safe and easy.
- Design communities that support safe and easy places for people to walk.
Goal 3: Promote programs and policies to support walking where people live, learn, work and play
- Promote programs and policies that make it easy for students to walk before, during and after school.
- Promote worksite programs and policies that support walking and walkability.
- Promote community programs and policies that make it safe and easy for residents to walk.
Goal 4: Provide information to encourage walking and improve walkability
- Educate people about the benefits of safe walking and places to walk.
- Develop effective and consistent messages and engage the media to promote walking and walkability.
- Educate relevant professionals on how to promote walking and walkability through their profession.
Goal 5: Fill surveillance, research and evaluation gaps related to walking and walkability
- Improve the quality and consistency of surveillance data collected about walking and walkability.
- Address research gaps to promote walking and walkability.
- Evaluate community interventions to promote walking and walkability.
“Three of these goals are particularly relevant to parks and recreation and will help us to promote walking and increase walkability in our communities,” writes Rachel Banner, NRPA’s program manager, in her recent blog on the subject, “What the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Walking Means for Parks and Recreation.” Banner cites goals two, three and four as those pertaining most to parks and recreation, and lays out a prescription for how the field can best capitalize on the momentum Murthy has given to the subject of walking.
“Although parks and recreation departments across the country have been making strides in creating walkable communities and promoting walking, we still have a long way to go,” Banner continues. “To achieve the goals of the call to action, everyone will need to play their part. With national attention, now is the time to Step It Up! and increase your efforts to get communities across America to walk more.”
How You Can Step It Up!
NRPA has prepared extensive materials to illustrate the many benefits of walking, from increased longevity to better mental health and savings at the bank. Our handy Get Out and Walk infographic, available for download, is an excellent tool to help demonstrate to patrons why walking is so important for health.
NRPA’s Safe Routes to Parks initiative provides great resources about how to make sure your parks, green spaces, and walking paths and trails are accessible to all users. Safe Routes to Parks addresses obstacles to walking — including safety, lack of proximity, infrastructure and other concerns — and offers solutions to remove any accessibility barriers that exist in your community. We’ve also provided a downloadable Safe Routes to Parks-specific infographic, which can help inform your community and elected officials about the value of universal accessibility to walking.
Both the aforementioned infographics and additional walking-related information is available at NRPA’s Walking Initiatives resource page. This includes an informative animated video that can be shared via email or social media, various tool kits, design guidelines, planning resources, opportunities for funding and scholarships and success stories of places that have made the promotion of walking a top priority.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to promote walking, however, is to lead by example. During his Annual Conference address, Murthy shared an anecdote about his mother and the difficulty he experienced trying to get her out and walking. He mused, how can the Surgeon General make this impassioned call for walking, while his own mother won’t get on board? Eventually, he shared, Mrs. Murthy did see the wisdom in her son’s suggestions and is out for a brisk walk practically every day, but not before he spent the time to convince her walking was both physically beneficial and safe in her community.
We would do well to follow in Murthy’s footsteps. Let’s begin in our own homes, by encouraging our spouses, partners, children, parents, friends and loved ones to get up and get walking for at least 22 minutes a day, every day. Then, let’s take that momentum to our parks and recreation facilities and support our co-workers and colleagues in their walking and fitness goals.
When everyone is walking, it will become easier to communicate to our patrons why they, too, should incorporate this fun and widely accessible exercise modality into their daily routines. Once that’s done, it’s only a matter of time until each new build or neighborhood revitalization naturally incorporates safe and extensive sidewalks, green spaces for respite and corridors of connectivity that allow us to use our feet, rather than our automobiles, as primary modes of transportation.
“Parks make our communities more desirable places to live, work and play,” Murthy told us in Las Vegas. “With your support and leadership, we can Step It Up!”
Samantha Bartram is the Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.