By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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The U.S. Surgeon General issued a call to action Wednesday to promote walking, prescribing for the nation the “easiest and most affordable” way to incorporate physical activity into the lives of an increasingly sedentary nation.

Dr. Vivek Murthy pushed the walking campaign as a means to help combat an “explosion of chronic diseases” that include diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity. Chronic diseases are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths, he said, and they cost the nation trillions of dollars in health care costs every year.

“Walking is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to build physical activity into your life. You don’t need a fancy gym membership or a set of skills. It’s something all of us can do,” he said during a news conference.

Murthy noted that an average of 22 minutes of daily moderate physical activity – roughly about 2 ½ hours a week – could significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Regular physical activity also can reduce symptoms of depression and mental illness.

“It turns out that one of the most powerful things we can do to turn the tide on chronic disease is something we have been doing for millennia. That is walking,” he said. “In the last few decades we have lost touch with physical activity. It has slowly vanished from our workplaces. Our children have less opportunities in school to be active. In our neighborhoods we find more and more people who are encountering difficulty with walking including safety issues.”

American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown applauded the call to action, saying that communities with streets that include bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks improve everyone’s health by making it easier and safer to be active.

She said that Congress is currently working on long-term legislation that would reauthorize federal transportation programs and that strong financial support for walking and biking trails can make a difference.

“We must provide more safe and accessible ways for Americans to walk or bike their way to better health,” she said.

Murthy also called for local city managers, law enforcement, transportation professionals and community leaders to collaborate and address problems that have prevented more people from being able to walk – or use their wheelchairs – in community spaces. He said problems range from lack of usable sidewalks and street lighting to dangerous traffic and crime.

He said having access to walkable spaces shouldn’t be a “healthy equity issue,” but it is one for many older Americans, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or those who are economically disadvantaged.

Marie-France Hivert, M.D., an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who focuses on obesity prevention, said walking “is too often overlooked” as an exercise. The involvement of the surgeon general in promoting walking will help heighten awareness among Americans about the importance of staying active, as well as the risks that sedentary lifestyles have on cardiovascular health.

“Any movement is good. You don’t need to be an athlete to be healthy and active,” said Hivert, who teaches in the Obesity Prevention Program in Harvard’s Department of Population Medicine.

Minor changes can have major impact, Hivert said.

“Instead of always taking the modern or lazy way, like having a remote control for everything, or ordering online, actually step out of your office and talk to people instead of sending an email,” she suggested.

Victor Colman, director of Washington state’s Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition, emphasized that state and community leaders can play a big role in encouraging healthier lifestyle changes. He noted that the legislature in Washington recently approved $56 million in new funding for the next 16 years to help his organization’s “Safe Routes to Schools” program that will enable communities to shore up infrastructure to make biking and walking to school as safe as possible for students. The program also helps incorporates an education component to reach “the hearts and minds” of community members to support active, healthier choices.

But Colman stressed it’s critical for public health officials like the surgeon general to push for more policy-based solutions.

“This is about community design. It’s about local planning. This is about state appropriations for projects, like what we got,” he said. “What we have to do is proactively design back in opportunities for physical activities.”

Murthy said that is why his call for action includes partnerships between the federal government and schools, colleges, private companies and nonprofit organizations to encourage walking at home, in school and at the workplace.

“Community leaders and the law enforcement can work together to make sure that no American is ever unsafe walking out the door,” he said.