Improved walking environments can benefit mental health

By Robbie Webber

For years doctors have been telling us that being physically active is one of the best strategies for staying healthy. And the benefits are not just from running or working up a sweat at the gym; something as simple as a brisk walk can significantly improve health. Now medical research shows that moderate physical activity can also help keep people mentally sharp as they age. Earlier studies found that children who walk or bike to school also have better concentration.

Walking is relatively easy as an activity; the equipment required is usually only a good pair of shoes. But there is one other element that might be harder to come by: a safe place to walk. New data on pedestrian fatality rates from the Centers for Disease Control shows that persons over 75 years of age have a significantly higher prevalence of pedestrian fatalities than younger people. That means when they walk they are at a higher risk of dying by being hit by a car.

The CDC speculated as to why fatalities are higher in those over 75:

Higher prevalence of chronic disease, disability, and frailty among older adults might contribute to these higher case-fatality rates. In addition, age-related declines in cognitive functioning, vision, and physical functioning might place older adult pedestrians at greater risk for being struck by a vehicle. For example, older adults take longer than younger adults to cross roadways.

As the U.S. population ages, we may need to adjust our roadway design to make it easier for seniors to walk. A report last year suggested “forgiving roadways” as a solution to lessened cognitive function as drivers age. But that argument was answered with concern that roadways that are easier to drive may actually be encouraging faster speeds and creating a more hostile environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, especially in urban areas, where older residents rely on alternatives to driving.

The elderly are not the only group finding a more dangerous walking environment. In the last ten years, the number of all fatalities due to motor vehicles nationwide has fallen by 24 percent from a high of 43,005, but pedestrians now make up a higher percentage of those deaths. Pedestrian fatalities have dropped, but only by 13 percent, and have ticked up in the last year for which data is available.

An NPR story on the CDC findings noted that pedestrian fatalities were lowest among those under age 15. “Maybe all that parental nagging about ‘stop, look and listen’ is working?” they wondered. However, part of the reason may be that children rarely walk to school, or anywhere, today. In 1969, 86 percent of elementary school-aged kids walked or biked to school if they lived within one mile. Those numbers have dropped to only 50 percent today. A principle reason parents give when asked why their children don’t walk to school is because of concern for traffic. For all school-aged children and teens, regardless of distance and age, only 13 percent travel to school by “active transportation.”

A good walking environment would facilitate acting on the medical advice to be physically active regardless of age. But a good place to walk includes safe crossings of streets as well as sidewalks in good repair. Instead of forgiving roads, perhaps we should be concerned about forgiving pedestrian environments.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.