Why I hate to walk

June HL Wong, The Star

HAVE you heard? We’re the third laziest people on the planet. That was the conclusion from a massive new study of 717,527 people in 111 countries by Stanford University.

While the Stanford researchers didn’t try to shame nations by using the word lazy, the co-relation was based on the finding that we are very reluctant walkers.

What the study did was to measure how many steps people take, using the data gathered from their hand phones with a fitness app that detects movement.

Hong Kong is tops, with its residents taking an average of 6,880 steps daily, followed by the Chinese, Ukrainians and Japanese, all scoring above 6,000 steps. We are third from the bottom with 3,963 steps a day, followed by Saudi Arabia (3,807) and Indonesia (3,513).

My Samsung phone has a built-in step detector too, but I wasn’t included in the survey. If I were, I would have been among my fellow citizens guilty of being lazy, condemned by the low number of steps I take. While there are plenty of the active Energiser Bunny type of Malaysians, I totally accept that the majority of us dislike walking as part and parcel of our daily lives.

That’s different from walking or running as a planned activity which is a deliberate, conscious effort to exercise.

But given the choice to walk or ride to a place, we will choose the latter, even if the destination is just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Others have tried to defend our poor walking record by pointing out that our roads are unsafe because of poorly designed sidewalks, snatch thieves and yes, our hot weather is another factor.

I agree with all that and more, but I know why I am a lazy Malaysian.

I just hate walking in my everyday life because it is really nasty. I live in Petaling Jaya, with an LRT station a 15-minute walk away. But will I walk there? No, siree. Not only do I not want to work up a sweat, but the footpath from my house to the station also plays hide and seek with pedestrians.

There are some decent sections but parts of it disappear or have a tree growing right in the middle, and there are far too many dangerous spots of broken and loose tiles. At night, a long stretch is poorly lit.

I also dislike walking on the five-foot ways of the neighbourhood shops. I willingly go round and round to hunt for a parking spot as close as possible to the shop I want to visit. Why?

Because these walkways are invariably filthy, badly maintained with overhead dripping aircon condensers. And don’t get me started on the drains, which are invariably clogged and foul-smelling.

If there is a car or motorcycle repair shop in the block, you can forget about walking through and you can add grease and grime to the mix.

That’s my experience walking in my suburb. Walking in Kuala Lumpur is not much fun either. I realised that when I spent six hours walking from Bangsar to KLCC during the last Bersih rally.

Even in our greatest metropolis, sidewalks are like an afterthought and once built, seemingly forgotten and left to quietly deteriorate. The only exception is the skywalk from Pavilion shopping centre to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

And that’s why I hate to walk. The only places I don’t mind going by foot are the malls. But when I get there, I do my very best to park as close to the entrance as possible.

It’s for the sake of safety and convenience but also because underground parking is hot like a sauna, often with poor ventilation and confusing signage.

But when I am travelling I am a different person. I walk without hesitation and much joy.

I checked my Samsung Health app and noted on Dec 6, 2016, I walked 28,144 steps and on April 18, 2017, I walked 29,597 steps, way above the 5,000 step benchmark in the Stanford study.

In December, I was in Busan, South Korea, and in April, I was in Kyoto, Japan.

Of course, when you are a tourist, walking is a given because you want to explore the place. But going by foot in countries like Japan and Korea is just wonderful.

The sense of safety, the well-thought out design, the cleanliness – all make walking just so attractive and easy. Go in the right season like spring, autumn and early winter, and you won’t even feel tired chalking up thousands of steps.

While our climate is a deterrent to walking, it doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome.

Singaporeans scored pretty high at number nine with 5,674 steps and we all know why. The city state ticks all the right boxes in creating an environment that is safe, clean and pedestrian-friendly.

In fact, that is a key finding in the Stanford study: well-designed pedestrian friendly cities can encourage people to walk and help combat obesity.

As dailymail.com reported, the researchers found that urban planning had strong health impacts and that “The cities that were best designed for walking had a better rate of activity among all its citizens.”

It quoted Jennifer Hicks, director of data science for the Mobilise Centre at Stanford: “In cities that are more walkable everyone tends to take more daily steps, whether male or female, young or old, healthy weight or obese.”

Now which city in Malaysia can boast of being well-designed? Putrajaya, of course.

But if you remember my April 6, 2016 column, I pointed out the irony of our national capital being a winner in the International Awards for Liveable Communities 2012, and yet having the highest rate of overweight and obese citizens, according to the 2015 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS).

Putrajaya won because it has “lush greeneries surrounding buildings, infrastructure, (12) parks and gardens.” But instead of getting fitter and healthier, Putrajaya residents have gotten fatter with their obesity rate going up from 27.4% in 2011 to 43%, according to the 2015 NHMS findings.

As I wondered then, I wonder still: Why aren’t our fellow citizens in Putrajaya taking advantage of their well-designed city?