More than half of American employers offer some kind of wellness program for employees. And a big chunk of those programs include what’s known as “lifestyle management” options — often having to do with physical fitness and weight loss/control.
One of the most common components of a fitness regime is walking. And walking more does indeed have proven health benefits, ranging from blood sugar control to lower blood pressure. In search of these benefits, employers have been known to encourage employees to walk around the office campus at lunchtime, take the stairs instead of elevators, walk to more distant rest rooms than the one(s) nearest their desks, even use treadmills or “walking desks” while they do their work.
But as healthy as such activities may be, they’re essentially add-ons to an employee’s routine. Wouldn’t it be great if you could encourage people to build a walk into, say, their commute, so that taking hundreds or thousands of extra steps a day becomes a PART of their routine? (FYI, the Centers for Disease Control recommends a level of physical activity that amounts to 7,000-8,000 steps a day, well above the average American’s 5,000 or so.)
Yes, it would be pretty great. But there’s a challenge: Driven down by changing patterns of residence and pedestrian-unfriendly traffic engineering, walking to work has steadily declined over the past 30+ years, according to the Census Bureau. Whereas in 1980 around 5.6% of American workers walked to their jobs, by the mid-2010s the figure was down to 2.8%.
How can an employer, even one that’s vitally concerned with the health of its employees, hope to turn that pattern around? After all, you can’t order people to move close enough to the office that walking all the way becomes practical for everybody — an employee pretty much needs to live within 3-4 miles to make a walking commute possible. (The Census Bureau says the average walking commute takes about 11 minutes, meaning the person’s home isn’t much more than a mile from work.)
Nor is it likely that you can up and relocate the business to a community where walking to work is easier and prevalent, like the university towns of Ithaca, NY, or Athens, OH.
What you can do
No, you can’t buck the trend in such ways. But there are a few things you might be able to do:
- Use incentives to promote walking — and/or biking — to work by those who live sufficiently close to make it possible.
- Consider subsidizing public transportation for those who can’t practically walk to work. Studies show that those who travel by train or bus ending up walking much more than those who drive.
- Encourage those employees who, because of distance and transportation patterns, must commute by car to park a distance from the office and walk the rest of the way. This might involve helping pay for parking in specific lots or garages that aren’t right next to the workplace.
The decline of walking is a societal phenomenon with its own power and momentum, and walking to work is especially rare in the fast-growing areas of the country in the South and West (although biking to work is significant in the West, notably in states like Oregon, California, Idaho and Colorado). No single employer can turn things around on a broad scale.
But if you’re interested in making walking a component — or a more important one — of your wellness initiatives, you might want to ask yourself whether a walking commute might be worth promoting for at least part of your workforce.
Subscribe to Leadership Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox