Walking is a health trend with legs

The city of Watkinsville is thinking about developing a “walking district’’ in its midtown area.

“The concept is to create a district of walking, shopping, eating . . . instead of the typical suburban sprawl where there’s nothing but concrete,” Tedd Vaughan, who owns the land for the proposed district, said in an Athens Banner-Herald article.

Meanwhile, the city of Macon is working on making its entire urban core a walkable area.

An increasing number of communities are promoting their walkability. That’s feeding an increase in walkers.

More of us are walking now, according to a CDC report released last week. But we don’t do enough of it, the report said.

Walking is one of those activities that we often take for granted. After all, everyone who is able does some of it. But the health benefits of brisk walking are substantial. And it’s free.

There are signs in the CDC data, and in the proposed developments in Macon, Watkinsville and elsewhere, that show our society may be moving in the right direction.

In the CDC report, 62 percent of adults nationally said they walked for at least once for 10 minutes or more in the previous week in 2010, compared to 56 percent in 2005.

But fewer than half of all adults get enough physical activity to improve their health, according to the report. For substantial health benefits, at least 2½ hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as brisk walking, is recommended.

“People who are physically active live longer and are at lower risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and some cancers,’’ said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director. “Having more places for people to walk in our communities will help us continue to see increases in walking, the most popular form of physical activity among American adults.”

The South trails behind

People living in the South had the largest increase in the percentage of people who walk, up from about 49 percent in 2005 to 57 percent in 2010, the report said.

The South, though, lags behind the West Coast in walking percentages. And the CDC reported today that Mississippi has the highest obesity rate in the nation, at 35 percent. Georgia’s rate is 28 percent.

Walking can help reduce the rate of obesity and overweight, says Michelle Kegler, director of the Emory Prevention Research Center in Atlanta.

Factors that deter physical activity include the amount of screen time –- computers, TVs, smartphones –- that Americans use, she said Monday. And Kegler noted, “I think Atlanta is a little more car-based than other metro areas.’’

But she also sees more interest in walking by cities and communities, where public health officials are working with urban planners to promote such features as sidewalks and walking trails.

Examples include schools that are sponsoring walk-to-school programs for children, including in Georgia. The Beltline area of Atlanta has miles of walking trails and green space.

Walking has been shown to be a very accessible activity, and produces very few injuries, noted Jennifer Gay of the Department of Health Promotion & Behavior at the University of Georgia. For older people, she added, it helps prevent bone loss.

Safe spaces for foot traffic

Retirees have more time for walking. But many other people have difficulty in finding time to exercise regularly. Working people often juggle their jobs, caring for children and other demands on their time.

“You may not have a place that’s safe for walking’’ due to traffic, crime, or a perception of such problems, Gay added.

Georgia, in fact, has a high level of pedestrian deaths, national figures recently showed.

Many neighborhoods in Atlanta and other cities have no sidewalks or green space. Some sidewalks are actually dangerous for pedestrians. High ozone levels may be another problem, especially in the summer.

Emory’s Kegler said that rural areas of South Georgia also have barriers to walking, including few destinations for walkers, and very few sidewalks. Yet in South Georgia, getting older has been found to be a motivation for walking and exercise, and crime isn’t as much of a concern, she said.

An advantage of an urban area, Kegler said, is more “mixed-use’’ developments, such as Atlantic Station. A 2011 study showed that people who moved to Atlantic Station increased their levels of walking for both recreation and transportation and decreased their automobile travel.

Many communities recognize that foot traffic is good for local businesses, UGA’s Gay said. Employers are providing walking opportunities for their workers, she added.

“It is encouraging to see these increases in the number of adults who are now walking,” said Joan Dorn, of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. “But there is still room for improvement.’’

“Communities can be designed or improved to make it easier for people to walk to the places they need and want to go,’’ Dorn said.

Here’s a Consumer Reports article on how pedometers can boost your exercise time. And to learn more about ways to get active, visit www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity