Is walking good exercise? For years, my husband and I debated this question. He scoffed. I championed walking and instigated hour-long trots through parks. Then, in one of those unpredictable reversals that make marriage fun, he became slightly pro-walking; I became strongly con. Now we lift weights three times a week at the gym. Fluorescent lights, musky odors, and coarse grunts replaced the soft skies, budding foliage, and birdcalls we enjoyed outdoors.
Baby boomers grew up oblivious to walking for exercise. We swarmed suburban backyards. Winters we sledded, skated, and tossed around snowballs. Summers we played crack-the-whip, Red Rover, and tag. Sidewalks were rare.
My working class parents claimed that as children they walked everywhere—school, town, farmers’ markets—but, with one exception, I never saw them walk anywhere. They didn’t lift weights, either. Though an industrial accident cost him two fingers, Dad built and maintained our house. Despite a bad heart, Mom filled our home with clothes, curtains, and upholstery she sewed plus vegetables and fruits she grew, cooked, and canned.
For many of us, life is different now. We buy goods and services and pay by toiling at jobs that entail debilitating repetitive motion injuries. For us, exercise isn’t a luxury: it’s crucial to our continued wellbeing. So how should we spend those precious exercise hours we steal from hectic schedules to keep ourselves well?
Our Acting Surgeon General recommends walking 30 minutes a day in 10-minute segments. Can that be sufficient? Common sense tells me it isn’t. I suspect our Acting Surgeon General has a dismal view of his people’s commitment to good health. After all, he knows that 40 percent of adults in the United States don’t engage in any leisure-time physical activity. More than 70 percent of adults don’t exercise 30 minutes most days, as he recommends. Clearly, these adults aren’t enjoying the exercise-free but active lifestyle of my parents’ World War II generation. In 2005, 67 percent of U.S. men were overweight or obese, and 50 percent of U.S. women were. For a colorful but scary depiction of how Iowa waistlines grew from 1985-2006, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Given these statistics, the Acting Surgeon General wisely advises us to start slowly and build on success.
Walking serves many people well. The National Weight Control Registry tracks adults who lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off at least one year. Among those registered, 94 percent increased their physical activity to lose weight. Their most frequently reported form of exercise was—guess what?—walking! But don’t get complacent. To maintain their weight loss, 90 percent of those registered exercise on average about one hour a day.
Walking has limitations. According to the University of Iowa’s Multicenter Osteoarthritis Study, walking alone can’t cure problem knees. If you have knee pain, visit your doctor and ask about physical therapy. Physical therapists teach exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the knees.
To avoid injury, everyone should use good body mechanics while walking. (As toddlers, some of us adopted our parents’ bad walking habits.) Place your feet shoulder width apart and parallel to each other, if that feels comfortable. Let your heel touch the ground first; then roll smoothly from heel to toe. Proper walking techniques and other tips—wear sunscreen, warm up, cool down, etc.—are available at the Mayo Clinic’s website.
This week, my husband and I visited friends in the country. We petted their baby goats and tromped around for hours. Once again, I changed my mind about walking.
Fitness professionals usually recommend a varied exercise routine that includes stretching, strength training, and aerobic conditioning. Walking can be one component of a well-rounded program. So go ahead. Invite a friend for a walk.
Even my dad took a walk once. During summer trips to Lake Erie, my family rented a small, musty cabin near a steep dirt road that led downhill to a creek. After splashing all day in Lake Erie, we’d drive to the cabin to eat Mom’s Italian fried chicken. Then my big brother and I always raced down that steep, dusty hill to explore stagnant creek water and shale-filled cliffs. One evening, my brother didn’t want to go. Dad walked me downhill instead! At the bottom, he wordlessly pointed. Lit by a resplendent sunset, a regal egret stood motionless with one leg in the creek and the other tucked under its torso.
One walk with the right person can create a memory that warms you for life. That has to be good for your heart.
©2008 Cheryl Fusco Johnson. Johnson teaches Nia Fitness classes in Fairfield.
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