Op-ed column: Walking is pleasurable way to lose weight, become healthier

Walking, both short and long distances, has been the foundation of my exercise life.

Categories: Opinion

Walking, both short and long distances, has been the foundation of my exercise life.

I’ve been walking for exercise and enjoyment since I stopped running, and I stopped running some years ago when it got to be too painful for my aging body. I also got fat, which happened when I got my driver’s license about 20 years ago. With a license I would drive everywhere instead of walking. At that time I lived through a perfect storm of unrelated events which spiraled into an overweight, underexercised lifestyle.

Then I discovered walking. I saw a book, “The 10,000 Step Diet,” which included a pedometer to measure your steps when you walked. Never to do things by halves, I immediately started walking 10,000 steps a day. This translated into five miles, from my house through Niskayuna and home, a big circle that included shopping, nice leafy streets and either an uphill or a downhill, depending on which way I walked the circuit.

Positive results

I’ve been walking ever since, and now discover that those of us who walk are in the vanguard of the health movement. The news is pretty big.

u People who step up daily exercise for 20 minutes or more for five days a week have 40 percent fewer days of illness compared with those putting in less than one day a week of activity (National Public Radio, Nov. 8, 2010). Not that walking is mentioned specifically, but stepping out the door and around a few blocks earns us the 20 minutes or more.

— Walkers live longer and healthier lives. The Honolulu Heart Study of 8,000 men found that walking just two miles a day cuts the risk of death, especially from cancer, almost in half.

— Walking helps prevent weight gain if one adds just 2,000 extra steps to one’s regular activities. Walking helps weight loss if calories are also reduced.

— Walking reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke in half, by walking 30 to 60 minutes a day.

— Walking boosts brain power, according to a study funded by the National Council on Aging.

u Walking improves mood and relieves stress. Exercise releases those feel-good endorphins.

Well, where did the standard of 10,000 steps a day come from? Why 10,000, rather than 8,000 or even 12,000 or 15,000? Turns out the notion was developed in Japan, as a way of selling pedometers. Yet, we don’t need pedometers to achieve our desired steps. We can measure a walking route, using as a rough rule of thumb that one mile equals 2,000 steps. I also learned that there is some scientific basis for the 10,000-step standard.

The American College of Sports Medicine recently published results of a study showing that American adults take fewer daily steps than our counterparts in Switzerland, Australia and Japan. Adults in these countries averaged 9,695 and 7,168 and 9,650 daily steps, respectively, whereas those of us in the United States lag far behind, averaging just 5,117 steps per day. The study confirms what most of us have already observed, that we Americans are physically less active than adults from other developed countries.

Start moving

What to do? Get moving, say the experts. They recommend that we add 30 to 40 minutes of walking to our physical activity regimen every day. The lead author of the study, Dr. David R. Bassett, Jr., says, “The health benefits of walking are underappreciated.” The low rate of physical activity in this country suggests a key reason obesity rates are so much higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries.

Here, 34 percent of adults are obese (defined as a body mass index of 30 or more). Australia, Japan and Switzerland have obesity rates of 16 percent, 3 percent and 8 percent respectively.

Walking has been called the “miracle pill.” For me, it is the exquisite pleasure that comes from exercise out of doors. Sometimes I walk with friends, sometimes by myself, sometimes with my dog. I put on a pair of sturdy shoes and walk out my front door. At my current age of 74, I look forward to many more years (if I’m lucky) of this pleasure called walking.

Larger mission

Yet walking for me has more than a personal significance. Even though I appreciate its benefits, it has for me a larger meaning. Cyrus Adler, a founder of the Shorewalkers (a New York City walking club) and founder of the Great Saunter, the 32-mile walk around Manhattan’s rim, speaks to walking’s larger mission when he writes:

“Walking is the first step in the never-ending effort to preserve the environment. No activity symbolizes the essence of conservation more than walking. The walker is the supreme conservator; she does not add pollution to the air or water, he does not waste natural resources, she destroys nothing.

He knows when and how not to act, not to despoil — a noble and difficult role given the ever-present pressure to use and produce.” Walking three to seven hours a week is a prescription for our personal health.

Maybe, just maybe, walking might also be a prescription for the health of our planet.

Patricia O’Reilly Rush lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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