Challenge One: Walk On

In Vancouver, where I live, it’s easy to get around by foot. Thanks to a progressive style of urban planning that promotes compact, higher-density and mixed-use development, most people live and work near a wide selection of shops, restaurants, schools, parks and other amenities.

Not only are many trips relatively short in length, but the city’s sidewalks and paths are safe and well-maintained. Considering how easy it is to get around, it’s no surprise that Vancouverites walk a lot. In Metro Vancouver, 23% of all trips less than five kilometres are taken by foot (Translink).

What is surprising is that almost three-quarters of trips fewer than five kilometres are taken by motorized modes, mostly by car. Notwithstanding the city’s pedestrian-friendly design, driving is still the preferred choice of travel even for shorter trips. When it comes to getting people out of their cars, we still have a long way to go. Though municipalities can make certain decisions to entice you to walk more, no one can force you to change your travel behaviour. At the end of the day, you have the final say on how you get around.

Walking may be impractical for longer trips, but it is a good option for shorter jaunts around town. In Metro Vancouver, approximately half of all trips made are less than five kilometres. This got me thinking: how feasible would it be to make every one of these trips by foot? And how would it benefit me?

To explore these questions, I challenged myself for one month to walk for all trips that are less than five kilometres. Conveniently, it turns out the average human walking speed is about five kilometres per hour. This makes for an easy to remember rule: If I can walk to my destination in less than an hour, then hoof it.

To help track my progress and measure the benefits of all this walking, I picked up an inexpensive pedometer from a local running store. I opted for a low-frills version that counts steps taken, distance, calories, time, and speed. Once I configured it for my weight and step length, I was ready to go. Nothing else is needed for this challenge except a good pair of shoes, comfortable clothes, and a rain jacket.

No Gym Membership Required

Why should you want to walk rather than drive? After all, walking takes longer and can be a nuisance, especially in the rain or when hauling heavy bags or small children. One reason is health. Consider this: the average driver in North America spends more than 15 hours a week inside a car. Sitting for two hours a day in a car is stressful and causes long-term health issues. In fact, spending this much time in a vehicle can shorten your life expectancy.

Walking is clearly a healthier option. Experts have found that walking for 30 to 60 minutes a day can reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and other health problems. One way to gauge the health benefits of walking is to look at the Amish, who refrain from using automobiles and other modern technologies. According to a 2004 study of physical activity amongst an Amish community in southern Ontario, Amish men averaged more than 18,000 steps a day while the women averaged more than 14,000 steps per day. Well above the 10,000 steps needed to lose weight, it’s no wonder only 4% of Amish adults are obese. By comparison, 34% of adults in the United States and 24% in Canada are obese (OECD). The Amish lifestyle may not be realistic for most of us, but it does provide a benchmark for daily physical activity.

Of course, simply knowing that something is good for you in the long-term does not necessarily make you change your behaviour in the short-term. I’m all for preventing diabetes, but it isn’t something I consider before dashing off to the grocery store. The reality is, in the midst of a busy day, the convenience of a car will often triumph over the long-term health benefits of walking.

To help sell yourself on walking, it can be more fruitful to think in terms of concrete, short-term benefits. This month I walked a total of 185 kilometres, equivalent to walking from downtown Vancouver to Everett, Washington. One of the perks of all this walking is it doubles as both a mode of transportation and a way to exercise. It effectively hits two birds with one stone. By abstaining from vehicles, I walked an average of six kilometres a day, which takes approximately 80 minutes. This exceeds the requirement for a “physically active” lifestyle – one that includes physical activity equivalent to walking more than five kilometres at a moderate pace.

Results from walking exclusively for all my trips less than five kilometres, January 2013
Results from walking exclusively for all my trips less than five kilometres, January 2013

 

All my walking this month burned an average of 400 kcalories per day, which is equal to 0.8 lbs of fat per week. To burn the same amount of calories, you would need to do 30 minutes of moderate to high intensity cardio exercises like running, or 45 minutes of circuit training or calisthenic exercises, every single day of the month. Though it takes longer to burn the same amount of calories, walking is easier, less stressful on the body, and doesn’t require any special equipment, fitness clothing or costly gym memberships. Also, walking is an easier pill to swallow than more strenuous exercises, like running or going to a spin class. The adage “no pain, no gain” doesn’t really come to mind when heading out for a walk.

Sure, circuit training will burn calories in half the time as walking, but it won’t get you to the grocery store. In addition to the time it takes to exercise, you still need to use time out of your day for all your travel needs. In fact, circuit training may even add to your daily travel requirements if you have to make a separate trip to the gym. On top of that, you’ll likely need to take time to shower and freshen up after your workout. If you factor in the total time out of your day for both transportation and exercise, you may be surprised at how time effective walking can be. Taking a more holistic outlook of time management might be the most important lesson I learned from this challenge. It certainly made me rethink how I make daily choices about travel and fitness.

Knowing that I am meeting my daily quota for physical activity, without having to make separate trips to the gym, is a big incentive to walk more. Although walking takes more time than driving, if you factor in the time out of the day that is needed to exercise, then walking becomes a more appealing transportation option.

Walking is good for the mind too. It gives you a chance to slow down and clear your head, which can help to reduce stress and boost your mood. By stimulating blood circulation and providing oxygen to the brain, walking also improves the functioning of your brain and gives you more energy. All month, my energy levels were consistently high. I’d like to think all this walking was at least partially responsible.

Walking is also easy on the pocketbook, and not just from the obvious savings in fuel, parking, taxis, or transit fares. Less expected, walking saved me money because it forced me to be more discerning with my travel choices. Due to the time it takes to walk, I wasn’t as impulsive with discretionary trips like dining out or going to the movies. Walking forced me to slow down and think more carefully about my travel decisions. If I was going to invest 45 minutes to walk to the theatre, for example, the film had to be Oscar worthy. Consequently, I made fewer frivolous excursions, spent less money, and experienced more pleasure from the trips I did make.

This challenge showed me it is possible to make most shorter trips by foot, particularly in a pedestrian friendly city such as Vancouver. What stopped me in the past was not a lack of ability, but desire – a concrete reason to change my behaviour. The benefits to body, mind and wallet provide a powerful incentive to keep walking. Helping the planet is the cherry on top.

Take the Challenge

Want to try this challenge? Here are some suggestions:

  • Create the challenge – set the parameters for your challenge. My rule was to walk exclusively for all trips under five kilometres, which is roughly an hour-long walk. You can adapt the challenge to reflect your personal abilities. To see exactly how far a five kilometre walk will take you, check out this free online tool that maps a radius around a point.
  • Get the right gear – use a good pair of shoes, comfortable clothing, and a rain jacket.
  • Track your progress – use a pedometer to track your steps taken, distance, time, and calories. Keeping track of these metrics is a fun and effective way to monitor your progress. As the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
  • Set a target – create a goal for yourself. For example, the health community recommends 6,000 steps a day to get the health benefits of walking and 10,000-12,000 steps a day to lose weight. Every 2,000 steps take roughly 20 minutes.
  • Look beyond the numbers – while counting your steps is helpful, don’t forget all the other benefits of walking, like increased energy, improved mood, and less stress. Walking also lets you slow down and take in the scenic beauty of the city. As Albert Einstein said, “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”
  • Walk with friends – go out for walks with friends, family or peers. It’s a good way to connect with others, boost your mood, and motivate you to walk more.
  • Walk while you work – consider scheduling some of your work meetings as “walking meetings.” It is a great way to squeeze in a walk during a hectic day at the office. If it worked for Steve Jobs, it can work for you.