The Walkability of Wellness

Highlights from Our iWalkDenver Series: Colorado Blvd

This series of Walk2Connect walks, in partnership with WalkDenver, brings neighbors & community members together to discuss the challenges that pedestrians face when our streets, sidewalks & pathways are not built for walking as a necessary mode of transportation.

Take a moment to think about your typical day, and how much time you spend sitting at your desk during the day, or on the sofa in the evening. Do you ever get to walk to lunch, and enjoy it outside? Do you spend more time looking at screens, or flowers and trees? Chances are, you have a busy schedule that makes it difficult to plan in exercise, enjoy some time outside, and engage with your immediate community. You are not alone.

Our hectic, technology filled lives have caused many of us to spend most of our time indoors, clicking and swiping various screens, and moving from seat to seat. We are seeing this trend toward a more sedentary lifestyle throughout all stages of life, from childhood through old age. Decreased physical activity, with little connection to a natural environment, is starting to affect our health and well-being. As more people adapt to city living, we see a human tendency to adapt to seclusion and inactivity. Unfortunately, the body and mind do not adapt so well to this way of life, and health complications begin to occur.

In the U.S., 31% of adults are obese and 34% of adults are overweight.1 Many diseases are linked to obesity, and can cause severe health problems, including: cardiovascular disease (CVD), hypertension, type II diabetes, certain types of cancer, and depression.1 These diseases are often chronic, and people who suffer from one are likely to suffer from multiple complications. It is estimated that due to such complications, 300,000 deaths per year in the U.S. can be directly linked to obesity.1

The number overweight and obese Americans has been climbing steadily for the last 20 years, increasing 20% in the last two decades.1 Meanwhile, our cities have continued to become more populated. Right now, over half of the people in the world live in an urban environment, and this is expected to increase to 70% by 2050.2 The key to happy and healthy city living is to create safe, walkable neighborhoods and pathways that also incorporate natural settings as an escape from the urban landscape.

Spending all our time inside, or surrounded by cars, buildings, and street noise can be stressful. When we have the chance to get away to a natural setting within our urban life, we can reduce our stress and restore our mental well-being.3 Access to these natural elements can promote a feeling of community and social cohesion, as neighbors interact with each other and enjoy the same space together.2 Visiting these places can also promote physical activity, by encouraging walking to those locations and being active while there.2 And, if there is one thing we Americans can use, it is more activity.

The U.S. government recommends 150 minutes per week and 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA).4 The problem is that Americans in all age groups are failing to meet these recommendations. On an average day, people spend eight hours participating in sedentary behavior: sitting in the car, using the computer, and watching television.5,6 Screen time is a major factor in the decreasing levels of physical activity, particularly in children.6 Studies show that when children watch three or more hours of television per day, they are 65% more likely to develop obesity, compared to children who watch less than one hour of television per day.6

Physical Activity in the United States

  • Fewer than 5% of adults & approximately 50% of children meet U.S. Government Guidelines for MVPA4
  • More than 60% of adults report infrequent physical activity1
  • 25% of adults report being completely sedentary1
  • Low physical activity is estimated to account for 10.8% of all-cause mortality4

The physical activity levels of young adults, ages 18-35, have also been dramatically decreasing.5 This age group tends to experience a sharp decrease in regular activity, and a significant weight gain as they move through the experiences this chapter in life brings.5 As young adults go through higher education, adapt to joining the workforce, and build their families, we see the sedentary lifestyle begin to take hold.5 It seems that having children, not aging, is the biggest factor in hindering the amount of daily physical activity young adults are able to maintain.5 Unfortunately, many young adults are not able to recover their level of activity as they enter middle age and older adulthood.

Even once physically active adults begin to run into barriers that prevent them from engaging in physical activity as they transition into middle and old age. Health problems associated with aging start to develop, as well as mobility issues that can make poorly constructed sidewalks and pedestrian pathways a literal roadblock to walking to nearby destinations.7 If there is a lack of accessible parks or recreation areas for older adults, we see physical activity continue to decline.7 Accessibility to desirable destinations is particularly important for the older adult population, as older adults are more likely to engage in light physical activity and decrease their levels of MVPA as they age.7

It also seems that the total amount of physical activity older adults partake in throughout the day may have a more significant impact on health than small spurts of MVPA mixed with significant sedentary time.7 Encouraging regular and sustained light physical activity has been associated with more positive health outcomes and well-being, independent of MVPA, in older adults.7 Since adults over the age of 60 are the least active age group among Americans, finding ways to incorporate daily activity is essential to maintaining health while aging.7

So how do we get more people walking and increasing their MVPA? By making their environments safe for walking and giving them a place to go. The characteristics of a neighborhood impact whether or not someone is likely to walk as a mode of transportation.8 Pathways that are pedestrian-friendly, and provide easy access to public transit, parks, and recreational facilities are among the most significant factors influencing how much people walk in their neighborhoods, in both high and low-income neighborhoods.8

Benefits of Pocket Parks

  • 81% of park users walked to their local pocket park4
  • Walked an average of 0.25 miles to get to the park4
  • 7% of park users said they felt safe at the park4

Public parks are common locations for physical activity, particularly for those who live in cities.9 Neighborhoods with walkable pathways, especially those leading to parks, tend to have higher levels of physical activity in adults than areas with lower walkability scores.9 Inner city neighborhoods often have limited access to green space, and safety while walking around the neighborhood is a common concern.4 This not only limits the amount of MVPA in such neighborhoods, but also the feeling of security and community.

Older adults are often most active in or close to their home, and walking outside is the most common form of physical activity for this age group.7,10 If there are physically attractive environments near the home, older adults are more likely to go outside and be physically active.10 Older adults of low socioeconomic status are particularly likely to engage in free physical activity, such as walking outside, and to utilize public transit and outdoor recreation areas.7 Neighborhoods that are built to support walking to these destinations offer numerous health benefits to their inhabitants, of all age groups.7,11

Walkable neighborhoods promote physical activity because people who live in those neighborhoods are encouraged to walk as a mode of transportation.11 Neighborhoods with high scores of walkability show lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, as well as clinically significant differences in BMI for all age groups and blood pressure for middle-aged adults.11 By designing neighborhoods to be more walkable, and providing destinations people can walk to, we can encourage walking and potentially improve the health outcomes.11

Health Benefits of Walking

  • 120 minutes per week has been shown to reduce the risk of all cause mortality8
  • 30-60 minutes, 3-5 times per week has been shown to decrease body fat percentage, lower BMI, prevent weight gain, and maintain weight loss in overweight and obese patients1,12
  • A 5-10% decrease in weight can reduce the risk of developing CVD and type II diabetes. Medications for these complications can also be reduced, or even eliminated1

Walking also requires little to no special equipment, and the walker can determine their level of intensity.7 By walking to neighborhood destinations, or adding walking into daily errands, walking is relatively easy to integrate into a daily routine, compared to other types of physical activity.7 Walking can also present fewer personal obstacles than other types of physical activity that could prevent participation, such as a lack of self-confidence, affordability, or a disinterest in physical activity.8

So, we can calm our minds and ease our anxiety in this stressful world by getting outside.3 And, we can lower our risk of developing diabetes, certain cancers, hypertension depression, and dementia by staying physically active as we age.8 Let’s lace up our shoes, find our local parks, and start exploring our communities! Who knows, you may even meet some neighbors along the way.

Article By:

Christine Caruso

Walk2Connect, Walking Movement Leader Coordinator

Metropolitan State University of Denver, Nutrition Student & Future Registered Dietitian


1 Bensimhon D, Kraus W, Donahue M, et al. Obesity and physical activity: a review. American Heart Journal. 2006;151(3):598-603.

2 Stigsdotter UK, Corazon SS, Sidenius U, Kristiansen J, Grahn P. It is not all bad for the grey city – A crossover study on physiological and psychological restoration in a forest and an urban environment. Health & Place. 2017;46:145-154.

3 Hernandez B. Effect Of Urban Vegetation On Psychological Restorativeness. Psychological Reports. 2005;96(4):1025-1028.

4 Cohen DA, Marsh T, Williamson S, et al. The Potential for Pocket Parks to Increase Physical Activity. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2014;28(3_suppl):S19-S26.

5 Unick JL, Lang W, Tate D, et al. Objective Estimates of Physical Activity and Sedentary Time among Young Adults. Journal of Obesity. 2017:1-11.

6 Roberts JD, Rodkey L, Ray R, Knight B, Saelens BE. Electronic media time and sedentary behaviors in children: Findings from the Built Environment and Active Play Study in the Washington DC area. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2017;6:149-156.

7 Chudyk AM, Mckay HA, Winters M, Sims-Gould J, Ashe MC. Neighborhood walkability, physical activity, and walking for transportation: A cross-sectional study of older adults living on low income. BMC Geriatrics. 2017;17(1):1-14.

8 Cerin E, Nathan A, Cauwenberg JV, Barnett DW, Barnett A. The neighbourhood physical environment and active travel in older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2017;14(1):1-23.

9 Dyck DV, Sallis JF, Cardon G, et al. Associations of neighborhood characteristics with active park use: an observational study in two cities in the USA and Belgium. International Journal of Health Geographics. 2013;12(1):26-35.

10 Portegijs E, Keskinen K, Tsai L-T, Rantanen T, Rantakokko M. Physical Limitations, Walkability, Perceived Environmental Facilitators and Physical Activity of Older Adults in Finland. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017;14(3):333-347.

11 Loo CKJ, Greiver M, Aliarzadeh B, Lewis D. Association between neighbourhood walkability and metabolic risk factors influenced by physical activity: a cross-sectional study of adults in Toronto, Canada. BMJ Open. 2017;7(4):1-10.

12 Cebula A, Tyka A, Pilch W, et al. Effects of 6-week Nordic walking training on body composition and antioxidant status for women > 55 years of age. International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health. June 2017:445-454.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply