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Getting Fit: Why More People Are Walking The Walk


Walking - walking is a relatively easy form of exercise. You don't need a gym membership. You don't need a weight bench. It's low-impact, and more and more people are doing it now as part of their exercise routine. A new study by the CDC shows that walkers are much more likely to get the recommended amount of daily exercise, and the benefits of all of that walking are clear. So what is it about walking that has more than 145 million Americans doing it on a regular basis? If walking is your form of exercise, we want to know why it works for you. Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Our address is:

Joan Dorn is the chief of the physical activity and health branch in the division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And I was able to get that whole title out only because I also walk. She joins us now from her office in Atlanta, Georgia.

Welcome, Joan. How are you?

DR. JOAN DORN: I'm great, John. How are you?

DONVAN: I'm good. I am a walker. I started about a year ago, so I know a little bit about what we're talking about. What does your new study show on walking?

DORN: Well, we have some good news. Our study compared walking in Americans - whether they walk for transportation or during their leisure time. And we show that compared to 2005, in 2010, there are 6.3 percent more - more Americans reporting walking than in the earlier years. So about 62 percent of American adults reported they took at least one walk for 10 minutes in the previous week.

DONVAN: So are they telling the truth, do you think?

DORN: Well, it - you know, when you ask people about their physical activity, there are a number of methodological challenges. But on a national surveillance the size of ours, we really have no choice but to rely on self-report. So even if they are not quite accurate at reporting, our study's based on the same questionnaire asked in 2005 and 2010. So it's unlikely that it would have impacted the fact that we're seeing an increase in walking. It may overestimate a little bit of the prevalence once people walking, but I think it's pretty sound in terms of more of them are actually doing it.

DONVAN: So what do you think is going on? Why are people - a lot more people are walking. Why do you think that's happening?

DORN: From our data, we can't specifically answer that question. We...

DONVAN: I know it's not a data thing. I'm looking for you hunch.

DORN: My hunch? OK, I can give you my hunch. My hunch is a couple of things. First of all, there have been a number of initiatives encouraging Americans to be more physically active. In 2008, the first Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans were released with a communication piece behind that. So there are a number of community programs that are funded by CDC to increase opportunities for people to be active. So we're hoping that they're getting the message.

We also can't rule out increases in gas prices. Perhaps, you know, some economic issues where people may not have jobs, so they're forced to go for a walk or to go get their groceries by walking instead of taking a car.

DONVAN: So is it clear the health benefits of this - are they clear beyond possible weight loss? And is weight loss even something that somebody should think is going to come from walking?

DORN: You're asking a really important question. Physical activity can help maintain healthy weight, and it is helpful in a weight-loss program if it's accompanied by a reduction in calorie intake.

DONVAN: You cannot walk your way to thinness.

DORN: Well, you could, but you'd have to walk a really long way if you are going to keep a choleric intake. But the really important point is, even in the absence of weight loss, health benefits of physical activity are vast. People who are more active have a lower risk of early death, a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, a bad lipid profile, diabetes, certain cancers, even depression. And there are some emerging evidence that it's better cognitive function in older adults. So even if you don't lose weight, you're healthier if you get out and take a good walk.

DONVAN: Is it the rule that it's just - it's so much better than doing absolutely nothing, that something is better than nothing? Or does walking actually have, you know, an enormous amount going on internally to make a good exercise?

DORN: Another great question. The first part of the physical activity guidelines states avoid inactivity. So if you think about walking, most of us do a little bit of it anyway. And if we were thinking about doing enough physical activity for our health, walking would be the perfect way to get started. You don't need a lot of equipment, as you said earlier. You don't need to join a gym. And most of us can do a little bit of walking. So if you've done nothing and you can get out and just get around the block the first time, maybe go a little farther and eventually work your way up, it's a great gateway to being physically active.

DONVAN: We've asked our listeners to call in with their walking stories. We want to - what we're really asking them is why, you know, why are they doing it, what's click for them? So I want to bring in some of them now. Let's go to Claudia in Fort Collins, Colorado. Claudia, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CLAUDIA: Hi, how are you?

DONVAN: Right now, we are walk of the nation.

CLAUDIA: Pardon me?

DONVAN: We're now walk of the nation.

CLAUDIA: I love it.



DONVAN: So what's your story?

CLAUDIA: I actually started a - I left the corporate world 12 years ago and started a pet sitting business, which, of course, incorporates dog walking. And I'm getting older. I'm baby boomer age and not exactly as I used to be. I used to be a runner, but I haven't done that for years. So the dog walking has helped me to get out, not only to stay healthy but, of course, take care of the animals, you know?

DONVAN: Well, I want to ask you something: As somebody who used to run, and now you walk - and I also want Joan Dorn to weigh in on this - as somebody who used to run and now I walk, I used to get really, really winded and really, really worked out cardiovascularly from running, and walking seems like a shadow of running to me. And I want to know, Claudia, do you ever have that feeling about it? Is it - it's I'm not quite getting what I would get from running? Or do you feel just great with the walk?

CLAUDIA: Well, because it's - I'm dog walking and it's something that I'm passionate about and I enjoy it, so I really even think about what you just mentioned because I actually ran a marathon back in the late '70s. And after that marathon, I tried to, you know, get going again and tried to run long distances, and it just wasn't happening for me.

So now, not really because as far as everything else out there besides the dog walking itself, I'm just - I'm enjoying the scenery and the environment around me. And I think from the standpoint of running, in respect to the cardiovascular health of it, yes, it probably would even be better if I was, you know, running. But I try to consistently walk everyday, whether it's dog walking or otherwise doing a hike or something like that so that hopefully my health will stay, you know, good as I age here.

DONVAN: All right. Claudia, thanks very much for your call. But, Joan Dorn, let me go back to that question. Is walking what you do when you can't or don't want to run? Is it not as good as running?

DORN: No, I wouldn't say it's not as good as running. I'm also a pretty active runner and I also like to take a walk, and I think I get very different benefits from each. You know, I think I take a run to be out alone and maybe think about the - what's ahead of me for today or to work off stress. But it'd take a nice, brisk walk to enjoy the scenery, to enjoy the social support of me walking with my husband or with a friend.

And as long as your walk is brisk, so you're, you know, a little winded, heart's pumping a little bit, you get great cardiovascular benefits, and they don't come with the injuries that are often seen with running. I think as people age, they start to see, you know, I can get great benefits without so many injuries, and walking becomes a very manageable and enjoyable activity.

DONVAN: Is there any particular length of time to be - to let a walk continue? Is it 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes?

DORN: Well, according to the guidelines, to get - to start to see health benefits, the bout needs to be about 10 minutes. But the beauty of the guidelines is you're supposed to accumulate 2 1/2 hours over the week. So you could do that in 15 10-minute bouts of brisk walking. Or if time didn't permit, you could go out on the weekend for an hour and 15 minutes on each day and take a brisk walk. So, you know, I'd say about a minimum of 10 minutes to start getting some cardiovascular. But back to your original point, just getting out the chair, any walking is better than doing nothing.

DONVAN: And - but brisk sounds like it's important. In other words, don't amble, brisk makes the difference.

DORN: Yeah. It's not like you - it's not like that walk you take in the grocery store. It really needs to be a little more continuous. As I said, a little winded but still able to talk and feel your heart pick up a little bit.

DONVAN: Let's go to - I'm hoping I'm pronouncing your name right - Nike(ph) in Cincinnati. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NIKE: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: Your name is Nike?

NIKE: Yes, it is.

DONVAN: And that's perfect.


DONVAN: What's your story of walking.

NIKE: Well, I've been a recreational walker for over 20 years. But on a New Year's resolution dare, I joined a walking training group, and I trained for the Flying Pig Marathon here in Cincinnati. And what made all the difference was that I had a group, including volunteer coaches, who helped me to build my distance and my speed and my stamina. And the Flying Pig is a really hilly marathon, so we did a lot of hills. And I guess it made all the difference, having those people counting on me to be there.

DONVAN: Terrific, Nike. Thanks very much for your call. I want to go to Abby in Lansing. Hi, Abby. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.



ABBY: I was told that walking wouldn't do me any good, that I should be running.

DONVAN: Who told you that?

ABBY: My doctor actually...


ABBY: ...told me that if I wanted to lose weight, walking wouldn't be good for me. But I started doing it anyway because I don't want to run. I don't need to get anywhere that quickly.

DONVAN: Joan Dorn, are you surprised that the doctor was saying that to Abby?

DORN: Well, you know, it's hard to say exactly out of context. One of the things she said is that it wouldn't help her in terms of weight loss. And so maybe what her physician was thinking that, you know, in a short amount of time if I run, I can cover a greater distance and that might be more helpful for weight loss. But certainly, I would be very comfortable in saying that you're reaping many health benefits by walking and you do not need to take running up.

ABBY: Right. And I am a very happy person now. I feel way better when I walk than when I don't walk, when I've been away from it for a few days. And the benefits are amazing.

DONVAN: So how much are you walking, Abby?

ABBY: About three miles every other day or so.


ABBY: When I get to the gym, it's three miles. When I walk outside, it's a little more like two-and-a-half.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much for you call. An interesting story and an interesting resolution, decision you made on your own. Let's go to - first I want to say, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. And let's go to Jake in Birmingham. Hi, Jake. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JAKE: Hey. In 2003, I broke my leg in 12 places, and as a consequence, my weight went up to almost 460 pounds. And in May of last year, I had a girlfriend who had encouraged me to start walking. We started about half a mile a day and I worked up to - now, I'm walking two to three miles every night, except for the weekends. And I've lost almost 200 pounds. I'm down to 270, and gone from a 56 waist down to a 42, and my life has completely been reformed. I mean, it's - I mean, walking has changed my life.

DORN: Congratulations. Good for you. That's incredible.

JAKE: Yeah. So any doctor that says you can't lose weight by walking, I mean, that's all I've done. I mean, at first, it would take me, you know, 30 minutes to walk half a mile. Now, I'm walking a 15-minute mile and, you know, and it's a part of my routine that I look forward to. Sometimes, you know, I don't want to do it because, you know, I'm in school and it's hard and then - but then, afterwards, I always feel so much better, like so much.

DONVAN: Jake, you changed your diet a lot as well, it sounds.

JAKE: Well, I did go from not eating as much bread. I went to tortillas instead of bread, and I started - the way I fixed my food instead of, you know, instead of fried, grilled, you know, things like that. But I still eat a good - I'm still, you know, I need to eat, you know, so...


JAKE:'s just - I changed the type of foods.

DONVAN: Jake, thanks very much for your call.

JAKE: Thank you.

DONVAN: Joan Dorn, given that - if a 145 million people are doing this, it sounds as though there a lot of boomers involved, and boomers have knees, and knees get arthritis. What's the relationship between walking and arthritic knees? Does it cause or help or what?

DORN: In relation to many other physical activities and sports, the contribution of walking to arthritis or any other injuries is much less. So, you know, overuse can cause arthritis. Injuries can cause arthritis. But if you think about how walking is the least stressful of some of those mobility activities. There isn't the pounding. The risk of injury is less. It's certainly going to contribute less to arthritis. And, in fact, in our study, people with arthritis also increased in the prevalence of walking over the five years.

DONVAN: Is it - I thought that there was research that suggested, that hinted at the notion that that sort of stimulation of the joint without it being high-impact could actually be beneficial in terms of arthritis, that it might stimulate some sort of lubrication or something like that. Anything to that?

DORN: I would have to ask an orthopedist or an arthritis specialist about that one. It makes sense, but I'm not sure of the, you know, the medical data behind that.

DONVAN: I have an email from Marghiet(ph), who writes: I'm 63-year-old Dutch-American woman. Unfortunately, the only place I could walk on sidewalks was when living in San Diego. In Durham, North Carolina and my current hometown of Helena, Alabama, this is not possible due to lack of sidewalks. I'm reluctant to walk on the street. I think it's unsafe. So I go to the Y and then I walk on a treadmill, but it's not like walking outside.

In Europe, we have sidewalks everywhere, and I used to walk there and even did the International Four Day Walk of 40 kilometers every day during four days. I think people would love - would walk more in the U.S. if there were more sidewalks available, especially in small towns or county. How serious a problem is that?

DORN: It's - you know, that's serious problem, and I thank Marghiet for the question. You know, I said there's some good news: walking's up. But 62 percent of Americans are walking. You know, the prevalence of meeting the guidelines is up, but more than 50 percent of Americans don't get enough physical activity to meet the guidelines. And so, you know, people need safe and convenient places to walk. So one of the main messages, in fact, the key message from our vital signs report was to improve the spaces and increase the number of places to walk so that people can become more physically active. And location, safety are some of the main barriers that people report why they do not walk.

DONVAN: All right. Joan Dorn, we are out of time, but it's been a real pleasure talking with you about this. Joan Dorn is chief of the Physical Activity and Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and she joined us from her office in Atlanta, Georgia. Joan Dorn, thanks very much.

DORN: Thank you, and keep walking.


DONVAN: I definitely will. And a small correction. Earlier, I misspoke and I said that Kevin Yoder was a lawmaker from Virginia. He is, in fact, from Kansas. Tomorrow, we will talk about the often intense pressures that students face in college. Join Neal Conan for that conversation. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.