Walking: It's only natural

Putting one foot in front of the other is one of the best ways to maintain and improve health

August 04, 2002|By Leslie Garcia | Leslie Garcia,Dallas Morning News

Long before walking was cool, Chuck and Dorothy Nissen walked.

Long before research showed how it lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, how it helps control diabetes and depression, the Nissens, from Dallas, walked.

Long before the choice of walking shoes rivaled the number of ways to make meatloaf, the Nissens, who are in their late 70s, walked for perhaps the best reason of all: It made them feel good.

It also, they believe, saved Chuck Nissen's life. A few years ago, he suffered an aortic aneurysm. He underwent a nearly nine-hour operation and spent two months in the hospital. Nurses called him "the miracle man."

"If it hadn't been for this exercise, I probably wouldn't have gotten through the operation," Nissen says.

Not every walker need journey to the brink of death to appreciate walking's benefits. Just lace up your walking shoes and go.

"It's just the perfect exercise," says Maggie Spilner, walking editor for Prevention magazine. "Our bodies were built for walking."

She estimates that 30 million Americans walk for exercise. About 30,000 readers subscribe to Prevention's "Walking Fit" e-mail newsletter.

Learning to walk is one of our first accomplishments, notes Darvin McBrayer, exercise physiologist at the Baylor-Tom Landry Fitness Center in Dallas. "It's the most valuable asset we possess," he adds.

Walking has "huge health benefits," Spilner says. "It does increase your fitness level. You gain energy and endurance. You're able to sleep better. It reduces the risk of heart disease. It raises good and lowers bad cholesterol. Diabetics who take a brisk walk can bring their insulin under control."

A recent study of women in their 50s and 60s showed that those who walked regularly were able to return their arteries to the same state of elasticity that they had in their 20s, Spilner says.

In her 16 years as walking editor, she has received "tons of mail" from people who have turned their lives around by walking.

"It's astounding, the men who used to say they took $394 worth of medicine a month and now don't take any," she says.

As if that isn't enough incentive, the stress-reducing benefits are worth a jaunt around the block in themselves.

"A brisk 15-minute walk is equivalent in relaxation power to taking 5 milligrams of Valium," Spilner says. "It has biochemical effects. ... You release endorphins when you exercise. It has a calming and mood- elevating effect."

Beverly Campbell of Dallas started walking indoors at her local health center to prepare for a hiking trip to Costa Rica. The 59-year-old came to walking the way many people do: Running injuries sidelined her.

"The perk of walking is that you're not jarring your body," she says. "When I quit running, I missed it a lot. But now, if I try to run for a block, I hate it. I love the walking now. "I'm a true convert."

McBrayer of the Landry Center cheers her conversion, and wishes more people would start walking and skip the running.

"We've disqualified running as a safe activity," he says. "It's traumatic. All you're doing is jumping from one step to another. A lot of the work is pounding the earth, but you're not eliciting that much more energy [than walking]."

"We sometimes overestimate the value of going out and sweating for pain, for gain," he says. "It's the Texas football mentality kind of thing."

Out of 10 walkers, he says, nine will likely be female. "What usually happens is that men join it further down the road -- age 55, 60," says McBrayer.

"They're so injured from guy things, that's all that's left they can do. They've been beaten up, abused themselves, and now they're with the rest of us walkers."

Walking is good for the muscles on your backside, he says. It stimulates fat utilization; even after you stop, you're still burning fat.

"Look at the pioneers," he says. "They didn't run across the country; they walked."

Tips for hitting your stride

Walking for exercise requires just a little more effort than meandering along. Dallas running coach Luann Bruster and other experts offer these tips:

* Stand tall and look forward to give your lungs plenty of room to work.

* Keep your steps short and quick, rather than long. To go faster, take faster steps, not longer ones.

* Bend your arms at the elbow, parallel to the ground, with fingers relaxed. Swing them forward and back, not side to side. When you swing them forward, your hands should be about as high as your breastbone.

* It's important to drink fluids before, during and after a workout. If your route has no water fountains, carry your own water.

* Calluses may be ugly, but they protect your feet against blisters. However, they can crack and become sore. A good foot or hand cream will help keep them soft after a bath or shower.

* If you chafe in the underarms or inner thighs, try using cornstarch or potato starch. There are also specialty lubricants, such as Bodyglide, available at running stores.

* The tighter the clothes, the less risk of chafing. Bicycle shorts and snug tops, particularly made of Lycra or microfiber, may be more comfortable than loose shirts and shorts.

* Just walk. Even 15 minutes is better than nothing. Then tomorrow, add five minutes; the next day, another five.

* Pump up your walk. Every 10 minutes or so, blast out for about three minutes, then resume your pace.

* Vary terrain. You'll get a better workout by going up and down hills than you will on flat ground.

* Go into walking with the intent of pleasure and of improving your health rather than losing weight. If you do drop some pounds, consider it a bonus.

* Try not to let those speedy types discourage you. Remember, they probably didn't start out fast.

* Walk with a buddy. You're more likely to stick with it if you know somebody's waiting for you.

-- Dallas Morning News

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