The benefits of regular physical activity for our health and well-being are well documented. Over the past 50 years, however, our increased dependence on the automobile, coupled with the invention of many labor-saving devices, has caused physical activity to be engineered out of our lives. It is now possible to go through an entire day without walking more than a few minutes at a time. Suburban sprawl encourages more driving, more polluting and fewer human-powered transportation options, thus creating less active environments for people to live, work and play.
A movement is growing across the country to create more walkable communities that support "active living" — places where children and adults can safely walk to school and work and where other destinations such as shops, restaurants and parks are close to home. Many studies support the association between certain features of the built environment and physical activity. These features include the number, proximity and diversity of destinations; the density of residential and employment areas; the connectivity, accessibility and safety of sidewalks and trails; the aesthetics (how pleasing the environment is for walking); and the accessibility of parks and open spaces.1
Many tools exist to assess environments for their "walkability." One such tool is called Walk Score™. You simply type in the address of the location you want to score and, in seconds, Walk Score calculates the walkability of the address.
* computes the distance to walkable locations near an address
* calculates a score for each location
* combines these scores into one easy-to-read Walk Score2
Although this scoring system has significant value in determining the number, proximity, and diversity of destinations to your particular location, it lacks the ability to include other important characteristics of a walkable neighborhood (e.g., safety, accessibility, topography). The developers of Walk Score readily admit the tool's limitations and point out how it doesn't work on their Web site.
Nonetheless, I found this tool to be a fun and easy way to find out part of the walkability story. Now that you know some of the variables that determine the walkablity of your location, you will just have to go out and get some of that good ol' physical activity to get the rest of the story!
Good community design supportive of active lifestyles, for recreation and active transportation, is just one of the many public health strategies that are needed to promote healthier lifestyles at the population level. Encouragement and incentives are also needed because the "build it and they will come" strategy is not enough. Too many things in our environment conspire to make the healthful choice the most difficult choice. If we are to make any headway toward improving the health of the nation, we will need to touch people at multiple levels (i.e., individual, family, community) and support them with policy and environmental changes that make healthful eating and active living the social and cultural norms of the future.
Cathy Costakis, MS, is the physical activity coordinator for the Montana Nutrition and Physical Activity (NAPA) program. NAPA is a statewide program funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and located at Montana State University-Bozeman. NAPA aims to improve the health of all Montanans through policy and environmental change and statewide/community interventions focusing on nutrition, physical activity, breastfeeding and caloric balance.