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Walking Hits Its Stride in the '90s

At lunch or on the beach, in groups or alone, more people are going through their paces as a simple but invigorating way to stay fit.


You see them everywhere: walkers. Not lollygags who amble along, but vigorous striders who step quickly as if they're late for an appointment.

You see them walking along the beach. You see them cruising through neighborhoods. You see them dart from places like the Ventura County Government Center at noon and make a beeline for the sidewalk.

If you happen to be a walker, you've got lots of company. Walking is now the No. 1 fitness sport, with some 16 million Americans pounding the pavement at least 100 days a year, according to Walking Magazine. In 1994 alone, the pedestrian ranks swelled by 6 million.

With that kind of boom, it's no wonder that about 200 walkers show up at the Esplanade Shopping Center in Oxnard three mornings a week to put in their miles before the mall opens.

"At 9:30, you won't get a chair in McDonald's--it's all walkers," said Georgette Davis, who coordinates the program for Mercy Healthcare Ventura County.

And it's not surprising that a walking club, the Channel Islands Volksmarchers, sprang up last year. It's affiliated with the American Volkssport Assn., a growing collection of clubs that promotes noncompetitive walking events through scenic areas.

For most, though, walking isn't an organized event. It's a regular jaunt with a friend or two. Or it's a solitary trek to clear one's head, listen to music or even learn Swahili on tape.

But why are so many people getting turned on to walking lately? It's been around, after all, since the first critter primeval slithered out of the sea. There's nothing new or exciting about putting one foot in front of the other.

The folks at Walking Magazine have a theory: Walking fits in with the '90s reaction against the previous decade's showy, complex lifestyles. It's the sport of voluntary simplicity, a less-is-better approach to fitness.

"If fitness of the '80s was equipment-driven," said editor-at-large Mark Fenton, "then fitness of the '90s is process-driven." He said people want to enjoy their workouts, spend more time with their families, and worry less about whether they have a hard body.

It's as simple as getting off the couch and opening the front door, but walkers all over Ventura County put their own spin on it.

Take Stan Howlett. He walks out of his Santa Paula home at 5:30 a.m. almost every day for a four-mile walk through the tree-shaded heart of downtown, past historic Craftsman homes, and back.

Howlett is 68, had open-heart surgery last November, and still managed to complete a 30-mile fund-raising walk earlier this year. What's in Howlett's chest isn't as amazing as the stuff at his feet.

On every daily trek, he picks up dropped change and in the last 10 years has found almost $1 a day, which he has put into an account for his grandson's education.

"I do it for the exercise--the other stuff makes it interesting," he said.

He strides along at three miles per hour, wearing out two pairs of walking shoes a year. Although his surgery forced him to cut back his usual seven-mile daily jaunt, he credits walking for his fast recovery.

"The doctor told me that probably being so active saved my life," he said.

Health organizations hail the benefits of walking. The Ventura County chapter of the American Heart Assn. distributes a brochure for walking wannabes. It suggests beginning with a five-minute walk, building up to 30 minutes over 12 days. Always do warm-up and cool-down exercises for about 10 minutes. Don't push too hard. Reduce your pace if you can't talk easily, or if you feel faint or out of breath.

The goal, according to the brochure, is a vigorous walk for 30 to 60 minutes, three or four times a week. You'll feel better and maybe drop some excess weight.

Here's the lowdown for calorie counters: A 150-pound person on an hourlong three-mile walk burns 320 calories, the equivalent of a fast-food cheeseburger.

Fred Fauvre, an Ojai internist and cardiologist, advises his patients to walk.

"I think everyone should walk at least a half-hour a day," said Fauvre, 52, who runs marathons and walks several times a week as well. A conversational pace is fine; mile for mile, you'll burn the same number of calories as you would running.

"I think it's the wave of the future," he said. "We'll see more of it."

Some walking advocates say it beats running because it's less jarring and injuries are not as likely.

If pounding the pavement-- even at a walking pace--still sounds tedious, you might take the approach of Charlie and Margy Gates who live aboard their sailboat at Channel Islands Harbor. The Oxnard couple walks on Hollywood Beach every morning and often in the evening too. When it's warm enough, they do their 35-to-40-minute route barefoot. They like the feel of the sand and say it gives their feet and legs a better workout.

"I don't like walking in the city," said Charlie Gates, a retired social worker who overcame heart problems after taking up walking in the mid-'80s.

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