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November 4, 2015

The Surgeon General Wants You to Walk More. Here’s Why, and How to Do It

by Amanda MacMillan

What if someone told you that you could significantly reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes in just 22 minutes a day? Even better, those 22 minutes can be spread throughout the day and don't require expensive equipment -- and you can take part almost no matter what shape you’re in. The requirements are, in fact, surprisingly simple: All you have to do is walk

Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an official call to action, urging Americans to walk regularly to reduce their risk of chronic disease and offering strategies that can help communities become more walkable. A call to action is a big deal. These official recommendations don't come along often (there have only been two others in the past five years), and when they do, they're in response to major public health issues. 

This one addresses a very specific problem: Fewer than half of all U.S. adults, and only a quarter of high school students, get the amount of physical activity needed to reduce their risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, diabetes and cancer. (That's 150 minutes a week -- or that magic 22 minutes a day -- of moderate exercise.) Finding safe, easy ways to fit more walking into your day can change that, says the Surgeon General. 

North Shore-LIJ physician Donna Marchant, MD, agrees. When people think of exercise, she says, they often think of high-intensity, physically demanding activities like running, weight lifting, or aerobics. But those aren't your only options. 

“It's great if those are activities you enjoy,” she says. “But moderate exercise, like brisk walking, has just as many benefits -- and because it's easy to do, you're much more likely to stick with it long-term.” Plus, walking is something almost everyone can do, even if you have physical limitations. “It's easy on your joints and there's a very low risk for injury, so even if you have arthritis you can walk.”   

If you're not getting 150 minutes a week of brisk walking, make that your new goal. And if you are, aim to get even more. It's fall, after all -- the perfect season for getting active outdoors. Here are some ways you can make it happen. 

  • Walk whenever you have downtime. Have a few minutes between appointments or meetings? Finish lunch early? Spend those extra minutes walking, rather than lounging on the couch or surfing the web at your desk. “Every little bit counts -- you don't have to go for a long walk to get a benefit,” says Marchant. Plus, a few minutes of activity will help clear your head and energize you for whatever's next. 
  • Schedule in more steps. When you drive to your job or to the store, choose a parking spot toward the back of the lot so you have to walk farther to and from. Get to work a few minutes early so you can take the stairs, rather than the elevator. Give your dog the extra block or two he craves. And if you're able to walk somewhere instead of driving, do it. Online tools like Google Maps can help you calculate how long your walk will take so you can factor extra time into your journey. 
  • Track your tracks. Wearing a pedometer or digital fitness tracker (or using an app on your smartphone) can help you become more aware of how much or how little you're currently walking. Your daily goal should depend on your health and lifestyle circumstances, but experts say that 10,000 steps (about five miles) is a good target for many people. 
  • Make it social. Like all exercise, walking is more fun with a buddy! Meet up with a group for early-morning walk-and-talk dates, says Marchant, or use your solo walking time to call an old friend you haven't heard from in a while. Or make it a family affair: Kids need exercise, too, and now's the perfect time for family walking adventures -- think hiking, apple picking, or afternoons exploring a local park. Feeling ready to do more? In 2016, CareConnect will reimburse members for up to $150 (plus $150 for your spouse) for entry fees for charity walks, local 5K runs – even the NYC Marathon! 
  • Advocate for walkable communities. A big part of the Surgeon General's Call to Action is making neighborhoods safer, greener and easier for walkers to get around. Ask your local government what plans are in the works near you, and how you can support them. It could be as simple as writing a letter, volunteering at a clean-up day, or reporting burnt-out streetlights to your department of public works. 

For more information on walking for health, talk to your doctor or visit (You can even tune into the Surgeon General's walking playlist on Pandora!) Walking may be something you already do every day, but every extra step you take is a step in the right direction.