Updated: Oct 17
by Dr. Doug Green
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t read about the benefits of regular exercise. Many writers who know running isn’t for everyone also extoll the benefits of walking for exercise.
I’ve been a compulsive exerciser since 1976. I’ve done a lot of running and bicycling, but as I go through my mid-70s, I do much more walking. This article aims to share my thoughts on how to make your walks safer.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Like most people, I prefer the fresh air, sun, and scenery of an outdoor walk. Such walks, however, come with some risks from vehicles with and without motors. Ideally, you can do most of your walking where motor vehicles aren’t allowed, as drivers struck and killed at least 7,508 people walking in 2022 – the highest number since 1981, with an average of 20 deaths every day.
However, most trails that don’t allow motor vehicles do allow bicycles, scooters, and skateboards, some of which have motors. If they can’t go faster than 20 miles per hour independently, they are considered consumer products and aren’t governed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. This makes no sense to me as they have MOTORS, but we must deal with it.
Living on the Edge
The same advice applies regardless of where you walk (or run). Walk on one edge of the trail or sidewalk to allow as much room for wheeled vehicles to pass. Where I live, it seems that more bikers bike on the sidewalk than on the road. My local rail trail even has a sign telling people on wheels to keep it under 10 mph, but many fail. However, many bicycle safety advocates advise that roads are generally safer than sidewalks for bicycles.
The right side makes the most sense unless you walk beside a road. In that case, walk on the edge farthest from the road. If you must cross from one edge to another, look behind first.
Walk facing traffic when you walk on a shoulder or a sidewalk next to the road. This allows you to see oncoming traffic so you can jump to the side if a driver doesn’t see you.
As for headsets, the safest approach is not to wear any and take in the ambient sound. If you do listen to music, books, or podcasts, as I do, keep the volume as low as possible so you can hear someone approaching you from behind.
Respect Bike Lanes
If you walk where there are bike lanes, be sure to treat them the same way you treat roads. While you are less likely to get killed being hit by a bicycle, it does happen, and it will hurt.
Walking at dusk or when it’s dark is less safe. Avoid it if you can. Suppose you can’t, be sure to wear bright clothing. Many sporting goods stores sell reflective vests often worn by hunters. You can also purchase lights that are designed to be worn. I would avoid dark clothes even during the day.
In New York City, 6% of pedestrian fatalities happen on the sidewalk, and 15% occur in the crosswalk while the pedestrian has the right of way. This suggests that you must be constantly alert when traffic is nearby, and there almost always is.
The Treadmill of Life
Treadmills are an option if the weather makes walking outdoors unpleasant or impossible. Where I live, there are a lot of unshoveled sidewalks in the winter, and while I walk with an umbrella when it’s raining, I don’t do so if it is below 50 F (10 C) degrees or so.
Most people take the boredom out of treadmills by listening to something on their cellphone or watching a nearby television. While treadmills are relatively safe, people fall off them occasionally, and they take up space if you live in an apartment like mine. It’s not a good idea to see how fast you can run or walk on a treadmill, as that will increase your likelihood of falling.
I walk back and forth in my apartment rather than use a treadmill on bad weather days. I kind of view my place as a treadmill. I have the television on and can always stop to watch if something exciting happens.
How Far, How Fast
Most recommendations I’ve seen suggest at least thirty minutes three times a week as a minimum. I shoot for five miles every day. Do what you can, but do something. I use a step-counting app on my phone, and as of this writing, I have walked more than 10,000 steps in the last 191 days. (I said I was compulsive.)
As for speed, try to walk briskly. The main point is to exercise your cardiovascular system, so the faster you walk, the faster your heart beats. Walking too quickly increases the risk of falling, so look for a happy medium. My pace is about 15 minutes per mile.
Watch Your Step
While taking in the scenery is excellent, keep one eye on the surface below. It’s not unusual for sidewalks to feature “trip hazards.” Trails in the woods also offer opportunities for tripping. Another hazard is ice. I fell once while looking at three women you just passed me and missed a spot of black ice.
If you need to look at your cell phone, do so while standing still. I was recently walking in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where they have streets for bikes, not just lanes. I was using my phone for directions and walking at the same time. I hit a lousy piece of sidewalk and bit the dust, or in this case, concrete.
You need to know where safe neighborhoods are. I check the local newspaper online every day and make a note of where crimes happen. They cluster in some neighborhoods, so I stay away from them. Crimes are also more likely to occur at night, and people are more likely to consume alcohol at night, which are other reasons for not walking when it’s dark.
Walking With Others
Walking with someone else can be more fun, and many women prefer it. Don’t walk more than two people wide on the street; stay on the edge as you would if walking alone. If you walk with a child, keep the child next to you and have the child walk on the edge.
If you are walking your dog, keep the leash short and walk next to the dog. This may not be easy with multiple dogs but do your best. Many modern dog leashes allow you to vary the length. A long leash might be safe in some locations and more fun for the dog, but it’s probably not safe on sidewalks or paved trails.
Now that you know how to be safer when you walk hit the bricks, and breathe some fresh air. Enjoy.