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A walking revolution: Helping older adults get and stay active


Date: May 29, 2013
Media Contact: Ashley Wiggin,, 206-221-2456

It sounds simple: get outside and take a walk. Walking on its own is known to offer numerous health benefits, everything from lower blood pressure to less aches and pains. For some people, though, getting outside and taking that walk can be a challenge. This is especially true for the elderly or those with disabilities. How will I get to my destination? Is it a safe place to walk? Are there street lights? Are there cracks in the sidewalk, making it harder for my walker to roll? These questions are pondered by millions of Americans who live with physical mobility challenges. Afterall, Over 40% of adults over age 45 have difficulty with pBasia Belza with older adultsBasia Belza with older adultshysical movement, and 58 percent of adults over the age of 65 have a disability.[1]

Thanks to findings from a new study from the University of Washington School of Nursing and School of Public Health (Co-Principal Investigators SoN Professor Basia Belza, and SPH Affiliate Assistant Professor Dori Rosenberg,) we have a better understanding of the needs of adults with mobility disabilities related to neighborhood walkability.  Recently published in The Gerontologist (53, 2, 268-279)) investigators interviewed adults aging with mobility disabilities and their ability to access the built environment to learn about their experience. Findings included poorly lit neighborhoods, a lack of public transportation, sidewalks in need of repairs, and unmarked or poorly marked intersections prevent people with disabilities from taking advantage of the benefits of walking.

Belza explains that older adults, who are the fastest growing demographic, are also the most physically inactive group and most likely need to deal with issues surrounding chronic disease due to this inactivity.

“People who are inactive in general have a higher incidence of chronic disease such a stroke, heart disease, arthritis.” said Belza. “Uneven walkwayUneven walkwayRegular engagement in physical activities leads to better health outcomes, including mobility, weight loss and decreased falls. This is especially important in older adults who may already be dealing with health challenges.” 

Belza notes that one study participant who lives in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood has already approached city council about needed neighborhood improvements.

In another related project, Belza partnered with Easter Seals Project ACTION and the CDC Healthy Aging Research Network, to create a Neighborhood Wayfinding Pocket Guide. This guide was designed to encourage people to get out in their neighborhoods and assess the state of sidewalks, transportation, street lights and other factors which could encourage or discourage neighborhood walking.

“The guide is a great way for people to get out in their neighborhoods and learn about how they can be more active in general while also helping others," she said. "The guide encourages people to consult with their city and town governments to share areas that need help or improvement, which they hope will encourage cities to invest more in communities."

Belza is continuing to look for ways to improve access to the built environment and increase physical activity in older adults.  She and her colleagues in the CDC-HAN are currently doing a systematic review to better understand older adults use of technology in wayfinding.

Belza believes that with improved information and resources, adults aging with mobility disabilities will be able to reap the benefits of walking, which has long been reported by adults as the most preferred way to be physically active and applauded by health experts as one of the best ways to improve overall health.

“Walking is a great way to decrease your risk for many chronic conditions, including heart disease, obesity and other health challenges,” she said. “We hope that our guide will help people improve their health by finding new and safe places to walk.”

Download your own wayfinding guide here. Funding for this project was provided by UW Health Promotion Research Center, a CDC Prevention Research Center.

Photo Captions: Belza talks with older adults at a lecture at Aljoya Thornton Place on April 30th. Above, uneven walkways such as these can prove challenging for older adults and those with mobility challenges.

[1] Rosenberg, D., Huang, D., Simonovich, S., Belza, B. Outdoor Built Environment Barriers and Facilitators to Activity among Midlife and Older adults with Mobility Disabilities. The Gerontologist, 53 (2), 268-279


The University of Washington School of Nursing is consistently a top-rated nursing school, according to U.S. News & World Report. Ranked No. 2 in research funding from the National Institutes of Health in 2011, the UW School of Nursing is a national and international leader in improving the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. The school addresses society’s most pressing challenges in health care through innovative teaching, award winning research and community service. For more information, visit