Visiting Finland years ago, I made the mistake of asking for directions. Getting off the ferry boat in Helsinki, I showed the chamber of commerce greeter the address for my hotel.
“Is it very far away?” I asked her.
“Oh no, it’s just a short walk,” she said, in a cheerful Finnish accent.
A “short walk” in Finland turns out to be over three miles. It was a long way to lug a suitcase up hill.
But that’s normal around the world, where walking a few miles to get where you’re going is something most people do every day.
Here in the United States, that kind of walking is a rarity. A recent study looking at cell-phone data from millions of people around the world found that the U.S. ranks poorly when it comes to everyday walking. The average American takes just 4,700 steps each day, a count that has surely declined since the pandemic and its work-from-home revolution. That might sound OK, but one problem is that American walking is not evenly distributed. The study also found that the U.S. has high “activity inequality,” meaning that a small number of people do a lot of walking while a large percentage are far below the average.
This is a long way of saying that, for the 5th year in a row, my New Year’s resolution is to walk more. I’m going to try and make sure that I take every opportunity I can to walk the streets of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, all through the year.
Theoretically, walking more is a great idea. Census data shows that most “trips” Americans make every day are shorter than three miles, or less than an hour’s walk for the average person. Add in the fact that most Americans – myself very much included – don’t get enough exercise, and you have a win-win situation.
Last year, I thought I’d made some strides (ha!) toward walking more, beginning a new full-time teaching job that would get me out of the house most days. I even installed a pedometer app on my phone. (I opted for one for the free ones, a simple tracker called Pedometer++.)
It turns out that walking more is not so easy, even when taking transit to work. Most days, I didn’t reach the the recommended 10,000 steps without making a concerted effort to walk someplace I didn’t need to go. And things got even worse during the winter months, when walking across campus becomes less appealing.
It’s a shame we don’t walk more in our daily lives because, when you dig into it, the health benefits of walking are surprisingly broad. Each year, researchers release new studies showing the wide array of mental and physical health benefits that come with even moderate amounts of walking. For example, even 10 minutes a day can make a big difference. By that standard, the usual recommendation of 10,000 daily steps would be like a health revolution.
But walking in the U.S. isn’t easy. One of the biggest barriers is the perceived time commitment, the idea that walking takes too long. This is true, but only to a certain degree. It turns out that people psychologically overestimate the amount of time that walking requires, and minimize how long it takes to drive and park a car. For me, this tendency results in a mild form of dread whenever I contemplate walking to the coffee shop or grocery store, a psychological barrier that keeps me from heading out the door.
In my experience, the dread disappears. Once you start walking, anxiety melts away like snow in the spring, and by the time I’ve been at it for 10 minutes, my mood has shifted. (There are even brain-scan studies that back this up, showing how distinct cerebral patterns emerge from a 20-minute stroll in ways that literally regrow nerve cells and can prevent cognitive decline.) Once you reach the halfway mark on a walking trip, the rest of the steps seem downhill.
Other barriers to walking are harder to overcome. One major obstacle is American urban design, where generations of traffic engineering have built streets that literally marginalize people on foot. Sidewalks are often narrow and uneven, results of decades of neglect and underfunding. Almost everywhere you try to stroll, speeding cars make walking unpleasant and unsafe. Throw in intersections with long wait times, long crossing distances, slip turn lanes, and inattentive drivers, and it’s easy to understand why pedestrian deaths have spiked over the last few years.
This isn’t to mention the broader problem of boredom. If it weren’t for dogs and cigarettes, I’d rarely see anyone on many of my walks through the city. That matters because more people on the streets makes walking more pleasant, and vice versa. City streets without walkers create a vicious cycle where doorways disappear, windows become reflective, and streetscapes grow dull. And thanks to Euclidean zoning (named after the city of Euclid, Ohio, rather than the famous geometer), corner stores have become a rare sight in most U.S. cities. Without mixed-use neighborhoods, many people couldn’t even walk to get a half-gallon of milk if they wanted to.
Finally, there are the literal hurdles, like sidewalks blocked due to construction or the unshoveled path in the winter. But it only takes one or two shoveling scofflaws to ruin a January stroll. (I’m looking at you, vacant lots on University Avenue.) So far, this year’s snowfall is the third snowiest on record, which has made sidewalks into an obstacle course. This burden falls heaviest on older people or folks with mobility challenges.
But the rewards outweigh the obstacles. Even at temperatures close to 0ºF, walking in the winter can be pleasant as long a there’s not wind whipping in your face. We’ll see how I do in 2023, but so far I’m off to a good start.
If you try to walk more this year, let me know how it goes. I think you’ll find that the hardest part is getting out the door.