Walking trails boost exercise, improve health at low cost

provided by Saint Louis University

xercise is a well known but little used path to better health, so how can communities get more arms and legs pumping before too many hearts stop pumping? Build walking trails, say researchers, and they will come especially women and people with lower incomes.

A Saint Louis University School of Public Health study of communities where more walking trails had been built found that nearly 40% of people with access had used the trails and more than 55% of trail walkers had increased their walking since beginning to use a trail. Walking is the most common physical activity among the general population, especially among older persons and racial/ethnic minorities.

This is the first US study to systematically examine the possible effects of walking trail development. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including support from the National Institutes of Health Women's Health Initiative, in a collaborative effort with the Missouri Department of Health. It appears in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published today.

The Saint Louis University researchers also found that women were more than twice as likely as men to report that they had increased the amount of walking since they began to use the walking trails. Similarly, lower income groups were more likely to have increased walking due to trail use than were higher income persons.

Notably, persons who were not regular walkers were more likely to report increased activity due to trail use than were regular walkers. "Even the previously inactive find trail walking attractive, which is extremely important because moving sedentary individuals to any level of activity is likely to confer health benefits," said lead author Ross C. Brownson, Ph.D., of the Saint Louis University School of Public Health.

"Public walking campaigns may be especially useful, though currently under-used, tools for health promotion because of their acceptability and accessibility," said Brown-son. "Walking trails may be beneficial in promoting physical activity among segments of the population at greatest risk for inactivity, in particular women and people in lower socioeconomic groups."

"The study underscores the aim of the Missouri Department of Health to improve the health of the public by encouraging healthful physical activity," said coauthor Bernard R. Malone of the Missouri Department of Health, coinvestigator in the study.

The researchers surveyed 1,269 adults 18 years and older from 12 counties in southeastern Missouri. Working with local leaders, community coalitions are building walking trails in these rural communities which offer few sidewalks, shopping malls or other affordable places to walk as part of a multifaceted program to reduce risk factors for heart disease. In addition to walking trails, the program also focuses on helping people stop smoking and eat better diets.

The researchers say the trails were developed at relatively low cost, about $2,000 to $4,000 per trail. Local public and private agencies frequently are willing to donate time and resources toward construction and maintenance, they add.

"Much more work is needed on ways to actively promote trail use and in determining whether there are longer-term effects on walking behavior among groups at highest risk of sedentary lifestyles," said Brownson.

Dr. Brownson is director of the Prevention Research Center at Saint Louis University School of Public Health, one of 23 Prevention Centers nationwide. The Prevention Research Center is a partnership between Saint Louis University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Missouri Department of Public Health. The Prevention Research Center strives to prevent death and disease by promoting healthy lifestyles, conducting research and applying research to local and regional communities.