As Sushila Johal strode around the track at John Burroughs High School in Burbank late one recent afternoon, several runners passed her by. But Johal showed no compulsion to catch up. Wearing a pair of sturdy walking shoes and a stereo headset, she seemed completely comfortable with her pace. Three times a week, she heads for the track, walking three miles a session. "I used to be a runner," says Johal, 38, "but I began to think it was just too hard on my body."
It wasn't pain or injuries that compelled Johal to switch from a high-impact to a low-impact exercise routine but simply her desire to avoid such hazards. She had read reports linking high-impact exercise with higher injury rates. So earlier this year, Johal began walking for exercise and now doesn't miss running at all. She's convinced that walking provides enough exercise to keep her in tiptop form for winter skiing and summer hiking.
Johal has a lot of company. About 20 million Americans, age 25 and older, walk for exercise at least twice a week, according to a 1989 survey conducted by the National Sporting Goods Assn. By contrast, 4.2 million engage in aerobic workouts such as aerobic dance, 3.9 million cycle and 3.3 million Americans run at least twice a week, says Tom Doyle, an association spokesman.
Last year alone, fitness walking drew 6.3 million new participants, says Mary Gregory, marketing manager of The Walking Magazine, a Boston-based publication that debuted four years ago and now claims a readership of 2.4 million. "The average age of fitness walkers is 43, and 65% are female," Gregory says. Fitness walking is defined by many exercise experts as walking at least three times a week for at least half an hour at a brisk pace, says Brad Ketchum Jr., the magazine's editor. A brisk pace is defined as walking at a 12- to 15-minute-mile speed or about 4-5 miles per hour. Swinging the arms a bit as you walk is a good idea, because it increases your heart rate and burns more calories. In race walking, an even speedier form of fitness walking, exercisers help propel themselves by exaggerated hip and arm swings.
In Southern California, the boom in walking seems to be in full swing. Walkers are changing buying patterns at sporting goods stores. "Pedometer sales are up," reports Todd Hulce, assistant manager at Big 5 Sporting Goods in Burbank. "So are the sales of wrist weights, and I think many are bought by walkers."
The walking boom is changing the look of 5K and 10K runs as well. Many now include walking events, sometimes called strides, due to participant demand. The 1990 Venice Fathers Day 5K and 10K race, for instance, included a 3K Family Stride. "This year, it drew 400 walkers," says Marjorie Alatorre, executive director of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, the event's sponsor. "We feel there is a vast number of people who walk every day for exercise. Why not include them in these events?"
Some fitness walkers, such as Johal, are former runners or other athletes who want to minimize the chance of injury. But some are former couch potatoes who view intense exercise as overwhelming. Whatever the motivations, the message is becoming clear: Walking isn't wimpy anymore.
Behind the walking boom is a "less is OK" philosophy of exercise, backed by research that says you don't need to run the City of Los Angeles Marathon (nor the New York or Boston "gruel-a-thons") to be healthy. A spate of recent studies suggests that walking is exercise enough for people to keep healthy and fit and that marathons can be left to those who want to be super-fit.
Distinguishing between health benefits and fitness benefits is a concept new even to exercise experts, says John Duncan, a physiologist at the Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. A major health benefit of exercise is improved cardiovascular functioning, while a fitness benefit is improved endurance. Recent studies suggest that people who exercise even at low intensity can achieve health benefits, along with some degree of fitness, defined by exercise experts as the ability of the body to transport and use oxygen. To become super-fit, though, exercisers must increase their workout intensity, and thus they improve their endurance and athletic performance. But experts say most people are more interested in the health benefits of exercise than the fitness benefits. If so, they can jog at a 10-minute-mile pace or walk an equal distance, says Dr. Neil Gordon, director of exercise physiology at the Institute for Aerobics Research. "You get the same health benefits. What counts (for improving your health) is the energy expended, not how intensely you exercise."
A check of medical literature turns up numerous studies attesting to the health benefits of walking. Here's a sampling of the researchers' latest findings: