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Alternatives:Healthcare Outside the Box

Feet First: Walking to Fitness

By David R. Dudley

The worst thing that anyone can say about walking for exercise is that it's better than nothing, and nothing is exactly what too many Americans seem to be doing for their health.

Lucy Bird, 65, joined the YMCA to solve a variety of troublesome health problems, from physical weakness to insomnia.

"I was watching a woman use the exercise bicycle at the Y," says Bird. "She was going on and on, and I thought, oh, that would be boring." So, to supplement a weight training regiment at the gym, Bird decided to take up walking in the hopes of gaining physical and mental benefits.

Now, at least three times a week, she takes a long, fast-paced walk, sometimes with friends, but more often by herself. On weekends, she takes her dog to an off-leash dog park for a canine-paced walk.

Bird feels exercise walking has improved her life, even after just a few weeks. "I find I have a lot more energy. And I sleep much better at night," Bird says.

Running and jogging buffs sometimes sneer at walking as a form of exercise, thinking it too mild to do any good. But the man who coined the term "aerobic," Kenneth Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., President and Founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas, says that "you get great benefit [from walking], yet have minimal musculoskeletal problems" of the kind running and jogging can cause.

The worst thing that anyone can say about walking for exercise is that it's better than nothing, and nothing is exactly what too many Americans seem to be doing for their health. Half of Americans are now overweight or obese, according to Thomas Perls M.D., M.P.H, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of Living to 100 .

This slow-down in physical activity may lead to a host of medical problems at a time when reliance on technology has reduced walking to an all time low. But a small number of people like Lucy Bird are bucking the trend and putting on their walking shoes.

Civilization at a stand still

In the United States today, a quiet but far-reaching transformation may have more people than ever kicking the walking habit.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, argues that pedestrian-unfriendly suburbanization and telecommunication are doing away with much of our collective walking time.

She laments that we tend to associate walking with time wasted in transit between the "official events" of our lives. In our narrow quest for efficiency, we rely on cars and telecommunications to reduce this transitional time. One result is that a significant portion of a species that has walked and walked and walked for millennia now sits and sits and sits.

The age-old rhythm of one foot in front of another is being edged out by the sedentary rhythm of suburban life — car, desk, car, TV, sleep; car, desk, car, TV, sleep. Telecommuting even eliminates the car, and lack of exercise often eliminates much of the sleep, so that people can stay up with their fellow insomniacs and watch more TV.

In short, people are slowing down their bodies at the same time that they speed up their lives.

Between mind and body

The waning of walking deprives people of incidental exercise, and also bears on mental well-being.

Any reduction in physical exercise can make people more vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression. Over the years, a number of studies have cited the psychological benefits of exercise. More importantly, Solnit argues, wherever we eliminate walking from our lives, we also eliminate casual but crucial opportunities for reflection.

According to Casey Meyers in his book Walking: A Complete Guide to the Complete Exercise, walking can also improve cardiovascular health and help control weight, reducing the risk of a variety of ailments from hypertension, stroke, and diabetes to some cancers.

The boundary between physical and mental health is not always clear, but many people find that walking helps them on both sides of the ambiguous mind-body divide.

Easing into exercise

While walking may be dwindling as a routine part of the average person's day, a healthy reaction has set in. People like Lucy Bird are deliberately carving out time in their lives for walking.

According to Myers, a sedentary person who starts walking for physical exercise should start out at a slow stroll and work up gradually to brisk walks (about 17 to 14 minutes per mile) for at least half an hour at least three days a week more if possible.

As with any physical exercise, it's best to be conservative and ease up to your capacity for speed and endurance from below, rather than overshooting and having to fall back, disappointed and sore.

Eventually, as the body adapts to more exercise, such brisk walking will lose its aerobic benefit and exercise walkers may want either to supplement walking with some other form of aerobic exercise or pick up the pace and move on to faster, aerobic walking. But being fit enough to require more vigorous exercise for aerobic benefit is a better problem to have than being sedentary and easily winded.

When you keep walking a bit beyond the transitional speed where it would feel more natural to break into a jog, points out Meyers, you are actually using more oxygen and burning more calories than a jogger at the same speed because you are moving inefficiently. This kind of inefficiency is good?you're getting more of a workout at the same speed, and without running's damaging higher impact.

For walkers to put the aerobic frosting on the cake, Cooper says you need to graduate to three miles in less than 45 minutes five days per week. Even with all that extra effort, says Cooper, the difference in benefit between brisk walking and aerobic walking pales in comparison to the difference between brisk walking and being sedentary.

So, to keep a sound mind in a sound body, Americans might do well to get back on their feet to do it not by necessity, but by conscious choice.

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