Women of the Walking Movement: Katy Bowman
America Walks recently posed an opportunity for our audience, internal staff, and supporters to nominate women walking champions who they admire. It was brought to our attention that Katy Bowman is making waves in the walking movement.
Katy is an internationally recognized biomechanist, author, and science communicator, with both the skill and passion for reintroducing movement into people’s everyday lives. With her bestselling books, award-winning podcast (with more than 3 million downloads!) and classes both in person and online, she reaches hundreds of thousands of people every month. She regularly travels the globe to lead workshops and retreats, and is frequently featured on TV shows like NBC’s Today Show and in publications such as Prevention and Good Housekeeping. Katy directs and teaches at the Nutritious Movement Center Northwest in Washington state, consults on research and on movement-rich community and educational space design, and spends as much time as possible moving outside with her husband and children.
“An area or community is only as ‘walkable’ as those who dwell within it, or said another way, the ability to walk is an element of a walkable community. My work for walkability is threefold and based on my experience as a biomechanist, movement teacher, parent, and citizen,” says Katy.
First, Katy likes to explain how walking works. This includes how walking affects our physiology, i.e. how walking improves health as well as the mechanics of gait, and the movements, mobility, and strengths that go into walking. She says many are unable to walk because their bodies have adapted to not walking. When they go to walk, walking hurts. Katy sees firsthand that this scenario quickly limits the practice of walking even when the desire is there. People are often told to go out and walk but are rarely given information on preparing their body for the task. Katy teaches people how to walk well.
“After teaching folks how to walk pain-free, I teach where and how walking fits into life. This is key, because sedentary cultures have worked to get rid of most movements from their lives. All along the human timeline until very recently, walking has been paired with some other action—people walked for water, food, shelter, and transport. When you do all these activities in a car, there’s no time or purpose left for walking, and thus we struggle to fit it into our lives,” says Katy.
It’s Time to Normalize Everyday Walking for Living
She teaches (through books, videos, and in person) this information—that in addition to being good for our bodies, walking is an efficient practice for getting tasks done (like groceries, banking, and the post office). Walking is a simple and effective way to stack family time with outdoor/nature time with movement. By informing folks of the physical, lifestyle, and ecological benefits of walking—at a variety of speeds, on a variety of terrain, with varying loads (groceries, children), inputs (wind, low light, cold or hot weather), and people, Katy says her clients learn the incredibly varied and rich movement opportunities a simple walk affords us all.
Thirdly, Katy takes long walks (15-40 miles in a day) regularly to study and document her own experiences of them, on social media or for various publications (as well as a forthcoming book about the role a long-distance walk can play in our physical well-being, psychology, community, and landscape).
“I walk in this way because I believe it creates a group of movement ‘nutrients.’ I walk because it’s an age-old practice that requires preservation. I walk in this way because it’s the easiest way to see the state of the community we often drive through at a pace that’s faster than ‘human.’ I walk in this way to understand and advocate for the safety and practicality of doing so for all,” says Katy.
She believes it’s one thing to talk about the walkability of an area and another to experience the breadth of all the variables that walkability can include. Walking is how she gathers her knowledge about walking.
Varying Perspectives Are Critical to the Walking Movement
Katy’s work is informed by the fact that humans evolved while walking many miles every day, and our bodies thrive when they’re experiencing that regular motion. But she says most of us aren’t experiencing even a fraction of this volume of walking, and our bodies are suffering from many diseases associated with sedentarism. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women; walking is a simple, scalable way to impact this issue. Higher physical activity levels are also associated with lower risk of cancers, like breast and endometrial, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, which affects women disproportionately. Walking is protective.
Also, our health and the health of our families and communities and planet depend on our movement, and walking is one of the most essential movement “nutrients” of all. She believes, and so do we, that walkable communities create a habitat for us to move more within, and that benefits us all.
On top of these physiological reasons, Katy affirms that women have valuable perspectives when it comes to walkable communities, as we tend to deal with more street harassment and other barriers to feeling or being safe. Racialized community members and people with disabilities face challenges as well and offer important perspectives.
“The fact is, we all face unique challenges and have many unique requirements, but at the baseline we all share an essential need to move—so the more voices contributing to community design and culture, the more people who will benefit from having truly walkable communities. Everyone from athletes to young kids to wheelchair users require space to move as much as possible,” says Katy.
Overcoming Barriers as a Woman in Walking
Katy references a level of safety concern at times, like when walking in certain places at certain times of day. But she also feels very fortunate in this area.
“I have others willing and able to come with me, I have the physical ability to deal with certain unknowns, and because my walking is by choice, I can more easily avoid situations I feel might be threatening. This is not the case for many who cannot opt out of walking in certain areas or at certain times because their work schedule, available housing, or lack of any other option when it comes to transportation mandates it,” says Katy.
She recognizes that she is fortunate to be able to use her privilege to expand movement opportunities for others.
Get Moving as a Radical Act of Walkability
Katy doesn’t think of walking so much as a field as an essential way of life. Want to get into walkability? She says the most radical advice is also the simplest: start walking or moving toward walking (i.e., learn to move your walking parts). You don’t have to be a biomechanist or have read every Jane Jacobs book to change your community’s culture. Start by going for walk.
Further, she recommends people invite friends, family, neighbors of all ages along. Our walks are more nourishing in all ways when we walk in community. Offer to carry someone’s baby, or play a game to keep kids occupied while their parents get to chat. Katy has lots of ideas if you need inspiration.
“Walk to get your groceries and carry them home. Walk with coffee instead of sitting in a café with your friend. Instead of a dinner date, have a date hike with a picnic. Walk on the grass next to the sidewalk to change how your body is moving. Walk when it’s raining. Walk when it’s snowing,” she says.
Of course, not all these suggestions are practical for places without sidewalks or safe walking spaces, and that’s why walkability and mobility justice work is so important. A major concern here is that even supposedly “walkable” communities are not being walked in. Katy’s call to action?
“We need a drastic cultural shift, and we need it now. If you have a safe place to walk, use it, and invite others to join you.”
Katy sees that people are doing excellent work championing walking for fitness and many are doing important and necessary work advocating for changes to rural and urban landscapes to make communities more pedestrian friendly. Her efforts go alongside that work to help people and our culture as a whole transition to being successful on foot.
Additional Resources Recommended by Katy Bowman:
- Katy recently interviewed two incredible women, Samantha Thomas and Maria Sipin, on her podcast, Move Your DNA. It’s a great episode that features inspiring and brilliant advocates in the fields of walkability and mobility justice.
Write-ups of some of Katy’s walking experiences:
- Will Move for Food
- 41 Things I Learned by Walking 41 Miles* Through My Community to Celebrate Turning 41
- How to Make a Long Walk Work