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July 4-11, 2007

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Health Issue:
Walking | Kofi Busia


Happy feet

Photographs by Ronit Taggart
Happy feet: Walking puts about half as much stress on joints as running. Plus it looks really cool.

Walk, Don't Run

For some of us, slow and steady wins the fitness race

By Traci Hukill


We set out from Depot Park on a warm summer evening, chewing up the miles along West Cliff toward Natural Bridges. Lynn Neilsen is tall and athletic, with toned legs and a steady stride. Like me, she's signed up to walk a marathon and a half this weekend in San Francisco as part of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Also like me, she's wearing cushy Mizuno running shoes, to which I swear I'm building a shrine if they carry me through this weekend's 39 miles. And like me, she was a walker before she signed up. But there the similarities pretty much end.

For one thing, Neilsen has actually had breast cancer, although she dismisses it as the "earliest-possible-detection, lucky-me" variety. She's also a mom to three who's taking care of her own elderly mother, whereas I'm unencumbered. And the stunner, which I learn somewhere around Mitchell Cove: she's 59. A fit, gorgeous, healthy 59, who walks about five miles most days and laughingly says she thinks she must ignore pain because she rarely notices any.

I'm gobsmacked by this information. Moreover, I'm now determined not to complain about my own throbbing 38-year-old feet. If ever I needed proof that walking is great exercise worth sticking with, Neilsen is it.

But the truth is I don't need proof. I've been a walker for years, a habitual hitter of the trail, a predictable pounder of the pavement. I've hiked every trail at Wilder Ranch, walked the beach from Rio del Mar to Sunset, stolen through darkened neighborhoods with voyeuristic delight and set out into strange cities to pass through the great jungle of human drama without being ensnared by it.

I have my own way of walking. Like the girl in that Cake song, I swing my shoulders, not my hips. I walk fast and hard. I never pump my arms or otherwise embarrass myself. Shortly after I set out, my feet find their rhythm. My breathing deepens and my thoughts start to sort themselves out.

Typically, after an hour to an hour and a half of energetic locomotion, I'm restored. Anything that's been bothering me seems manageable again, and my energy burbles like a little fountain. I've used walking as exploration, meditation, therapy, stress management, pick-me-up and social activity.

And oh, yes--an ideal form of low-impact exercise that 76 million baby boomers whose knees are starting to hurt might do well to consider.

Susan True and Tamera Walters

Walkie talkies: Susan True, left, and Tamera Walters use their walking time to bond. "This is how we catch up," Walters says.

Easy Does It

Over the last three months, as I've gradually worked up to walking as much as 22 miles in a day, "low impact" hasn't always seemed an accurate description. Walking on concrete is brutal, asphalt only a little less so. At distances like that, an ache spreads up through the feet and into the shins, as if a thousand microscopic fractures were blooming. Blisters puff up and odd muscles, like in the hips, grow fatigued.

And yet this is much easier on the body than walking's fancy-pants cousin, running.

"Walking puts about two times the body weight and running about five times the body weight on the joints," says Cindy Laprocina, licensed acupuncturist and physical trainer with Cinergy Acupuncture. "From a wear-and-tear perspective, walking's going to help your joints last longer."

Well, we all suspected as much, didn't we, even as we were forcing ourselves to jog around the track once more when every part of our bodies was screaming that this was a bad idea?

Julie Scopazzi is certainly hip to this. An Avon Walk veteran who's training this year with six of her relatives, Scopazzi has friends who refuse to run anymore. "A lot of them are saying, ‘I'm bicycling or walking. I'd rather be able to hike into my 80s than run and have such horrible knee problems that I can't even walk,'" she says.

Of course, some people were biomechanically made to run, Laprocina says. These people are blessed with perfectly aligned, Thoroughbred-worthy joints. And even those who weren't can at least learn good technique and minimize the damage. But that's rare. "I've been an avid runner for 20 years and I rarely see anyone running with good form," she says. "I cringe when I see some people."

Of course the big trade-off is that walking doesn't burn as many calories or condition the heart as well as running. A person has to walk at a pretty good clip--about four miles per hour--to get into that fat-burning zone. At my pace, I burn about 80 calories per mile compared to 130 if I were running even a pokey nine-minute mile.

Tamera Walters, who has done the Big Sur Marathon's 22-mile power walk for the last three years, is one of those four-mile-per-hour people who's able to make short work of her Pleasure Point–to-Capitola loop. "People think you're going to take a leisurely walk, that it's going to take a couple of hours," she says, "but as long as you've got a good pace going, it doesn't take that long. It's like a run."

Anthony Von der Muhll, an orthopedic acupuncturist and trainer who teaches at Five Branches Institute, says he recommends walking to many of his patients because they need to start with something gentle. He refuses to sign on to my not-so-subtle campaign to establish walking as superior to running, but he does throw me a bone: it turns out the Civilized Pace, as I like to think of it, is better than anything else for a certain ailment common to our desk-bound, car-driving species.

"Just about every kind of lower back pain responds very well to brisk walking on a level surface for 20 minutes or more," Von der Muhll says.

"Mechanically, it puts a mild load on the ligaments, tendons and discs in the low back, which is enough to send the signal to them to get stronger but does not injure them. And in general there's this gentle torquing motion back and forth, with the hip moving forward on one side and then on the other, that helps strengthen the connective tissue and stabilizes the spine."

Maybe more importantly, walking just plain feels good, and it requires no more discipline or expertise than a desire to get out in the air and move around.

Not the Mall

But let's face it: for all its benefits, walking has a PR problem, a seniors-at-the-mall problem, a goofy-looking-Olympic-event problem. Young people think it's for oldsters. Men think it's for women. And indeed, a casual glance at East Cliff or West Cliff in the morning or after dinner would make a person think it's the national sport for women over 30.

But in fact, walking has had some very macho supporters over the years. The most recent endorsement comes from former Senator, presidential candidate and New York Knick Bill Bradley, a manly man (and Rhodes scholar) who in March told the New York Times Magazine that the best exercise is "walking outside, about five miles a day.

"People want an intense experience," he told the interviewer, "not realizing that walking is an intense experience."

Being outdoors is a major draw for many walkers. Walters, the Big Sur Marathon participant, says she's always been "a real outdoors person" but wasn't good at sports when she was younger, so she never found an activity to stick with until she started walking.

Thomas Jefferson was another big believer in perambulation. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr Paris, he advised, "Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far," and went on to lament the "degeneracy of the human body" occasioned by over-reliance on the horse, of all quaint things.

And centuries earlier, St. Augustine is rumored to have uttered the wise words, "Solvitur ambulando," or "it is solved in walking."

This is my favorite walking-related aphorism. Whether it's a short morning jaunt by the water or a 15-mile, heel-pulverizing training walk on neighborhood sidewalks, I walk because it soothes my mind, even when my dogs are barking. It seems to do the same for other people.

"It almost becomes meditative for me, because sometimes it's the only time during the day where I'm either by myself or with a friend, and this is how we catch up," says Walters. "And when I'm by myself I oftentimes pray, or if there's something really heavy on my heart that I know I need to talk to someone about, I'll practice having that conversation. Sometimes I even catch myself, my lips are actually moving."

Scopazzi usually walks with a trainer friend of hers, but last year during the Avon event she wound up walking alone for long stretches.

"It was very therapeutic, because in my life I don't have a lot of time to just be with me and think about how I'm going to tackle the next big issue in my life," she says.

And so we walkers solve the world's problems, or at least our portion of them, by putting on our shoes, taking a breath, and getting out there to work through them, step by step. It isn't the most glamorous sport, but it surely is the most enduring.


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