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Walk This Way

It's free, and all you need are good shoes and a safe venue. Walking, the American Heart Assn. says, benefits most people, even heart patients.


Dawn Nakamura-Kessler is a living example of the health benefits of walking.

When the Denver woman is not in training for race-walking marathons, she's walking for the fun of it. But it wasn't always that way.

Because of her dedication to a walking program and the benefits she has derived from it, Nakamura-Kessler is a national spokesman for the American Heart Assn., which will stage its fifth annual Healthy Choice American Heart Walk, a series of weekend walks, next month in cities and towns across the United States.

(In Southern California, the walking weekends get an early start Saturday in downtown Los Angeles with a four-mile walk that includes Chinatown. Throughout October, walks will be held in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Call [213] 727-2940 or [800] AHA-USA1 for details.)

As an active college student, Nakamura-Kessler held down three jobs and ran daily for exercise until a rash of serious symptoms finally sent her for medical care. Her doctors discovered she had bacterial endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart lining or valves. As a result, she needed open-heart surgery to replace a damaged mitral valve.

"I had always exercised and been very health-conscious," she says. "But I gradually just got sicker and sicker over a three-month period until finally surgery was the only option." She was 26 at the time.

Nakamura-Kessler's cardiologist recommended replacing her damaged valve with a pig heart valve rather than a mechanical valve. "The pig valve only has a life of seven to 10 years, but the mechanical valve can be a risk during pregnancy," she says. Since she hadn't had children, she chose the pig valve.

After her surgery, she resumed exercising, but found the experience frustrating.

"I tried riding a bicycle, but I got really tired," she explains. "Then on the second anniversary of my surgery, I entered a 20K race-walk and found myself being passed by women twice my age and weight."

While she still lacked the stamina to win, she was encouraged by the founder of the New Mexico Race-Walkers to become serious about race walking.

"I started race-walking training for the next marathon and became addicted to the program. It's a way for me to exercise, strengthen my heart, build my endurance and cardiovascular stamina--and feel good about myself, even when I'm having a bad day."

Nakamura-Kessler became so involved in the sport that she became an award-winning race walker who has participated in the New York City Marathon and plans to enter the Chicago Marathon and a similar event in her former hometown of Albuquerque.

When she's not training for marathons, she's walking for the fun of it. "I belong to a walking club, but I also walk by myself and with my neighbors," she says.

The American Heart Assn. says almost everyone can benefit from walking, even if they are not as serious about it as Nakamura-Kessler.

"The nice thing about walking is, it's free and available to almost everybody," says Dr. Gary Balady, associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine andco-author of the association's scientific statement on exercise.

"All you need is a pair of sneakers and a safe place to walk, like a sidewalk or a mall," he says.

"Walking is something that can be included in your daily routine without making any extra effort," he says. "It's an exercise that is available to you all the time. For example, on your lunch break, go out for a walk. If you don't have time for a 30-minute walk, walk for 10 minutes at a time, a few times a day."

Even a heart damaged by heart disease can be strengthened through a regular walking program when other exercise regimens may be inappropriate.

"Because people with cardiovascular disease tend to be limited in the amount of exercise they can do, they tend to become sedentary and their muscles can deteriorate," Balady says.

"I've made walking my sport of choice for the last six years," Nakamura-Kessler says.

When incorporated into a healthful lifestyle that includes elements such as weight control, a nutritious low-fat diet, smoking cessation and stress reduction, a walking program can improve a person's vigor, mobility and outlook on life--even for someone with heart disease.

"Heart disease doesn't have to be the end of your life," Nakamura-Kessler says.

In other walking news . . . The American Diabetes Assn. is sponsoring Walktoberfest ($50 pledge minimum), Oct. 5 and 6 in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. For information, call (213) 966-2890 or (805) 685-2773.

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