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Get Back in the Exercise Swing by Walking Into Spring

Posted - Mar. 12, 2004 at 7:20 a.m.



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The calendar says spring is near, which, in theory, means hibernation is almost over. So, no excuses. Get outside and start moving.

But wait. Your knees hurt. You're still carrying the winter weight that kept you warm. You've become too mellow to play games that produce winners or losers. Perhaps you don't want to be in some sweaty health club when the flowers are in bloom.

Try walking, the most overlooked and underrated form of exercise, and a gentle way to slide into the more hectic stuff. Let's count its virtues:

It's good for you. The surgeon general says it takes just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day, five days a week, to make a difference. Some experts say that doesn't even have to be 30 minutes in one stretch. If you keep at it, and eat and sleep sensibly, you'll shave some pounds and become more flexible and stronger.

It's convenient. This makes walking virtually excuse-proof. You can set out in the morning to clear your head and rev up the blood for the workday. Instead of eating those $7 lunches, walk a mile or two to shake out the desk kinks. Unwind after work by walking and ruminating on what's more important, work or your life.

It's flexible. You can walk alone or with your dog or multitask by using a group walk to catch up with friends. You can also work your way up to joining walking clubs and walking races.

It's cheap. All you need is a good pair of shoes, but there are all kinds of devices to help you get serious. Pedometers measure steps. Heart-rate monitors help you hit your target rate for efficient fat burning and heart strengthening. There are even CDs that help you time your pace by the beat of particular songs.

It's safe. It's hard to hurt yourself walking, but you still have to be mindful of stretching and cooling down. Because it is low-impact, it's especially inviting to folks nursing injuries, disabilities or heart conditions. (If you do have medical concerns, ask your doctor first.) And stay alert - as always - for the unsavory among us.

When my MS relapses, running is a non-starter, but walking keeps me moving and the blues at bay. In those windows where my symptoms subside, I get more ambitious. But I had no idea, really, about its exercise and lifestyle potential until I read, "Walking for Fitness" (DK, $15).

Written by Nina Barough, a cancer survivor and long-distance "power walker," the book discusses everything from technique to finding the right shoes to stretching and strengthening the right muscles. For instance, how do you walk? Do you pronate? Supinate? Or do you have a neutral step? A good sporting-goods store can often tell you which you are, but Barough says you can do it yourself. Get your foot wet, shake off the excess water and then walk across a tile floor or posterboard. The footprint will tell you where you need support.

She is so thorough that she discusses how to lace your shoes.

"Walking for Fitness" focuses on serious walkers, but the information is useful for all of us who have let couches and computing dictate our posture. Sit by any path or sidewalk and you'll see slinkers and slouchers and clompers and waddlers. Competitive walkers, just like runners and dancers, keep their core strong and balanced.

If you're interested in a walking club or event, Northwestwalking.com is a good place to start.

Here's my own simple advice: Don't drive when you can walk. If you do drive, park farthest away from the entrance. You get in a few more steps and save your car from door dings. Walk up a few flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. It's a first step.

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WHAT TO DO TO FIND A PROGRAM THAT FITS:

The International Council on Active Aging says older adults should ask themselves a few questions before jumping into an exercise program.

Determine your style. Are you into classes or do you like to go solo? Night or morning person? Indoors or outdoors?

How much time have you got?

Get a checkup and start slowly so you last.

Make a date with a friend to help stay motivated and committed.

Make goals possible.

Check out any club or facility you may want to join and ask yourself if it's comfortable and fun and the staff is friendly.

Tell friends and family about your new goals and ask for their support and encouragement.

Figure out what is holding you back and then figure out how to beat it.

Pay attention to your shoes, especially if you have arthritis, diabetes or orthopedic problems.

If it hurts, don't do it. Focus on the major muscle groups in the legs, chest and back. Work on balance.

Once you've reached your goal, reward yourself. Don't quit.

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(Send questions on workouts, equipment or nutrition to Richard Seven at: Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.)

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(c) 2004, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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