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A Call to Walk the Talk (excerpt)

Despite proven benefits, walking remains an underprescribed and underused activity for seniors

Despite proven benefits, walking remains an underprescribed and underused activity for seniors

By Marijke Hopman-Rock, PhD

Walking is a simple and effective intervention.
Walking is a simple and effective intervention.

In my eyes, walking is the most underestimated physical activity form ever. Many studies have extolled the benefits of walking, including the Netherlands’ 2010 National Recreational Walking Monitor (in Dutch, see


In this report, the definitions of recreational walking areas are as follows:

  • short walk is 30 to 60 minutes (2-4 km);
  • longer walk is 1 to 4 hours (4-14 km);
  • long-distance walking is more than 15 km a day.

A regular walker is someone who walks 30 minutes a week at a minimum and who also makes longer walks regularly. A long-distance walker is someone who walks more than 15 km daily on a regular basis.


The Netherlands (total population 16 million) counts about 6.6 million walkers ages 18 years and older, including 850,000 long-distance walkers and 2.3 million city walkers (walkers in their neighborhood). Of all walkers, 40% are between 50 and 64 years old, and 10% are age 65 years and older. According to the Monitor, reasons to walk include “relaxation” (85%), “health” (66%), and “enjoying nature” (53%). Most walkers are accompanied by their partner (66%) or by friends (19%).


It’s easy to conclude that walking is a physical activity with a low barrier for many people. The bad news is that the respondents who are 65 years and older walk relatively less than their younger peers.


Benefits and Obstacles

A review of the benefits of walking by Lee and Buchner (2008)—specially made for a walking conference—revealed that “walking is a simple health behavior that can reduce rates of chronic disease and ameliorate rising health care costs, with only a modest increase in the number of activity-related injuries.” As far as I know, however, only modest attempts have been made by health professionals to stimulate older people to walk. Why is this?


Let me tell you a story. Ten years ago, I gave a presentation to about 100 general practitioners. They listened to my (as I hoped) stimulating presentation of physical activity programs for older people. After I ended my presentation, the doctors just stared at me. One doctor raised his finger and asked: “What should I do with an older woman suffering from heart problems?” He added that she had come into his practice with her son, who happened to be a lawyer.


Of course, I was astonished by this question. After a moment, I answered that he could ask the son to accompany his mother on a five-minute walk, adding a minute every day until 30 minutes a day were reached. I said that it appeared to me that this could also improve the relationship between mother and son. The audience did not laugh. I realized that this doctor feared the patient could have a heart attack or a fall. He was really afraid to be sued if he should give the advice to walk!


Unfortunately, I still feel this attitude when speaking with care personnel about physical activity for older people. After all, they must think, if you don’t move, you cannot fall.


To read the entire article, go to Active Aging Today. If you’re not a subscriber, subscribe now.

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