A Step in the Right Direction

Volksport club members find that a brisk walk is not only good, inexpensive exercise, it can be fun, too

November 03, 2007|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Reporter

It's a Sunday afternoon and Bob Schmick is walking the old No. 8 trolley trail off Edmondson Avenue in Catonsville, a tree-lined, sun-dappled path that, except for the little dog yapping in a nearby yard, feels like a slice of Walker's Heaven.

Schmick, 64, an accountant from Severna Park, is the president of the Maryland Volksport Association (MVA), the largest walking organization in Maryland, with some 5,000 members.

Volksport is a German term that literally means "sport of the people." It can include biking, swimming and cross-country skiing. But 95 percent of MVA events are exercise walks that are noncompetitive and designed to appeal to all ages.

As he passes a wall with a stunning mural of a trolley car, Schmick is asked why he walks so much, why the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other brings him so much joy.

Does he do it for the same reason espoused by Henry David Thoreau, who famously said of walking: "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow?"

Does he share the thinking of the late American cardiologist Paul Dudley White, who told everyone he met: "A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world?"

As he continues walking the trail - by now he must want to throw a stick at that yappy dog - Schmick is silent for a moment.

Finally, he stops in a minicloud of dust kicked up by his New Balance walking shoes and says: "I do it because it's fun, ... and fun is something a lot of Americans feel they can't have."


Walking for exercise and fun.

What a concept in a country where more than 60 percent of the citizens are considered overweight, more than 30 percent are considered obese, and more than 40 percent of adults say they never engage in any physical activity.

Walking? Most people seem like they never even get off the couch.

The fact is, no matter why people do it, walking is the most popular exercise in the U.S., with over 70 million participants, according to experts.

A good, brisk walk works half the body's muscles. And it's a safe, low-impact exercise that doesn't lead to a visit with your orthopedist, the two of you squinting at your X-rays and scheduling that hip- or knee-replacement surgery.

Walking is also just about the cheapest form of exercise around.

All you really need is a sturdy pair of walking shoes, although you can spend lots of cash on gear - expensive running or walking shoes, Gore-Tex windbreakers, polypropylene socks, walking sticks and the like.

(There was even a Walking magazine. It went out of business years ago. But not before comedian George Carlin made vicious fun of it in his stand-up routines. "What's next, Breathing magazine?" he'd sneer, sending the yuppies in the audience into paroxysms of laughter, even though some were undoubtedly thinking: Hmmm, Walking magazine. I'll have to check it out.)

Most walkers walk in their neighborhoods, and many walk in indoor malls, especially when the weather turns overly hot or cold.

But some people, such as Schmick, would go crazy just doing endless loops around the same streets and cul-de-sacs, or the same climate-controlled mall.

"Quit walking just in your neighborhood! Go out and see things!" Schmick bellows when asked for his top tips for walkers.

Schmick enjoys organized walks - in volksport walks, participants receive a start card that is stamped along the route, which is generally 10K, or 6.2 miles.

He also likes to socialize when he walks, and see new places, which is why he does six weekend walks per month with the Annapolis Amblers, the Freestate Happy Wanderers in Laurel and the Baltimore Walking Club.

(All are MVA-affiliated and under the auspices of the American Volksport Association (AVA), a national nonprofit organization with some 100,000 registered walkers dedicated to promoting physical fitness.)

Linda Hassell, a retired state employee from Pasadena who handles publicity and membership for the Happy Wanderers club, takes the concept of walking in new places to extremes.

Along with her husband, Bill, a retired federal employee, she's walked in all 50 states as well as in China, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and other countries.

She says she got hooked on walking 18 years ago, after doing a group walk in the bracing winter air in Alexandria, Va.

"It was all decorated for Christmas," she recalls. "And I thought this was fun. It was a way to get outdoors and see more places in Maryland."

Now she walks three miles a day and does a longer walk with the Happy Wanderers on the weekend, all of them ambles, she says, rather than brisk walks. Which reminds you of the line from quirky comedian Steven Wright: "Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."

Back on the No. 8 trolley trail, Schmick and a walking companion have finished their stroll as the autumn sun begins to lower in the sky.

The little dog behind the fence is still yapping.

But Schmick seems not to notice. He's the picture of relaxation as he heads to his car with the AVA specialty license plates.

"The thing about walking," he says, "is when I get done ... I feel good. I feel better than when I started."


Maryland Walking Clubs

Annapolis Amblers





Baltimore Walking Club





Chesapeake Bay Country Wanderers (Odenton)





Columbia Volksmarch Club





Freestate Happy Wanderers (Laurel-Savage)





Great Greenbelt Volksmarchers





Piedmont Pacers (Mount Airy)





Seneca Valley Sugarloafers (Gaithersburg)





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