Friday, August 16, 2013

I Walk A Lot, I Just Don't Walk Much

I live in Manhattan and walk just about everywhere I go. I walk to work, the grocery store, my son's day care, most errands, out to dinner, plus other regular and infrequent places I go. Since we (unnecessarily and counter-productively) label people by their transport modes, I am a Walker.

Now, my life isn't very exciting, but I do things sometimes. But while I walk a lot, I really don't walk much. Over the past week I have used the Moves app on my phone, which tracks distance covered, time spent traveling, steps taken, and other aspects of personal travel.  It's not perfectly accurate, but fairly close. It does not record my vertical transportation, mostly the stairs that I take. I probably walk up and down about 15-20 flights of stairs daily.  Here is a table describing how much I walked each day over the past week (the Friday is incomplete, but I won't be walking far to get home in a bit). So I average 2.2 miles of walking daily, though this is somewhat inflated by my activities last weekend. Saturday and Sunday featured not only my regular walks to and from my office on the Columbia campus, but walking to the D train to go to Yankee Stadium for a couple of baseball games. Monday, with the most walking, was a regular work day plus I met a friend for dinner in the Flatiron District. To get there I took the D train again, but south. Since it was a nice night I got off at Herald Square and walked down Broadway to about 20th. Then afterward I walked to 14th and 7th to get the 1 train home. These routes added a lot of extra walking and in no way represent the fastest or walking-minimized travel.

So what's the point? There are a couple from my anecdotes. First, it is really hard to walk great distances as part of normal daily activities. Even when people go out of their way to walk more, as I often do, it doesn't necessarily increase the distance traveled or calories burned that much. Because walking is slow, you just don't travel that far. Second, for planning, this means that density and mixing of uses is critical--as we well know--but also that weight related health benefits--e.g. calories burned--may be limited. The kicker is that the denser and more mixed the built environment is the less distance people will cover on foot. In my week described here I never walked enough to burn off a sweetened iced coffee, if I drank those. Here is a video of what 200 calories looks like, which is about the daily average calories I burned last week through my regular walking.

Walkable communities are sorely needed in our cities, but in the best walkable areas people don't walk all that far. We should plan for and encourage walkability because people like it, and we should be skeptical that a walkable built environment will do much for obesity, though there are other health benefits.


John Hupp said...

Do you think it's possible there's a benefit to walking with greater frequency; ie smaller walks throughout the day, versus going to the gym in the morning or the evening? The benefit of walking might not be the calories burned, but rather the effect of endorphins on energy level and appetite. Also, I wonder what the numbers look like for the average suburbanite. You might not walk very much, but an obese person might walk even less.

Unknown said...

I agree that the benefits from walking extend beyond calories burned, though we don't really know much about the effects of many short walks throughout the day. I'm certain that more walking is better than less walking in terms of health. My point is that the distance that people walk is unlikely to be enough to reduce obesity, which is what many claim. Good urban design may increase the number of walk trips but decrease the distance traveled, which may diminish expected health benefits. Though this has not been studied much yet.

John Hupp said...

I imagine there have been relevant studies done by kinesiologists, but I would not be surprised if there has been little overlap with urban planning.

J said...

In England, people are recommended to take 10,000 steps per day.
The obesity epidemic can be accounted for by a (population average) 100 calorie per day difference between intake and expenditure so 200 calories daily should be sufficient to prevent obesity (in someone eating sensibly) even if it is too little to treat existing obesity.

iyen said...

Thanks for this post! I think it also highlights how obesity is the result of many factors, not just the walking anyone might do. You might also do other exercise? You feel safe to walk the routes that you do. Not everyone has access to other forms of exercise or has safe environments.