When Walking magazine debuted in 1986, comedian George Carlin seemed incredulous that anyone would buy a periodical about something as basic as putting one foot in front of the other.
"What's next?" he scoffed on "The Tonight Show." "A magazine about breathing?"
Eleven years later, fitness walking has become the most popular physical activity in the nation, with 14.5 million regular participants, according to American Sports Data Inc., a Hartsdale, N.Y., sports and fitness research company.
Walking magazine is a thriving publication that was purchased in April by the Reader's Digest Assn., in part for its rapidly growing circulation, now at 625,000. And proper breathing--while not yet the topic of a magazine--is an increasingly common component of fitness classes and the subject of at least one new book.
Walking is America's favorite exercise for five reasons, says Walking magazine's editor at large, Mark Fenton: It's easy, effective, enjoyable, economical and empowering.
"We get loads of letters from people who say, 'Walking changed my life,' " he says. "Often they'll say that when they started out, they could barely walk for 10 minutes, and now they walk in 10K races. Mostly, they tell us how walking's helped them feel better and look better."
Beginners can start with a 10-minute walk, then add a few more minutes each week. How far and how fast to go depends on your goals. To boost your health and reduce your risk of numerous chronic diseases, walking 30 minutes a day, six or seven days a week at a "brisk" pace is sufficient. (Accumulating several shorter bouts of activity--such as three 10-minute walks per day--can have similar benefits.)
If your goal is optimum cardiovascular health, the American Heart Assn. recommends walking continuously for 30 to 60 minutes, four to six times a week--or 30 minutes every day--at a pace you consider "somewhat hard" to "hard."
To enhance your workout, Fenton offers this advice:
* Walk tall. Americans have notoriously poor posture, with rounded shoulders and swaybacks.
Counter these bad habits by gently contracting your stomach muscles to flatten your lower back. Don't slouch or hunch your shoulders. Instead, think about elongating your spine, and be sure to look forward, not down in the gutter.
* Take quicker--not longer--steps. To pick up your pace, step more quickly and let your stride length come naturally.
* Bend your arms. For a speed boost, bend elbows to 90 degrees and let your hands swing in an arc from your waistband to chest height.
* Push off with your toes. Land on your heel, roll your foot from heel to toe, then push off forcefully with your toes.
* Take to the hills. For a more strenuous workout, forget about hand or ankle weights, which may lead to injury. Instead, walk some hills.
Although walking is one of the safest exercises, injuries can happen. The main reasons people get hurt are doing too much too soon and wearing improper shoes. Always start slowly and progress gradually, and choose shoes designed for walking.
Also, take time to stretch. Muscles that get stronger will also get tighter unless you stretch them out. You should stretch for three to five after a walk, experts advise.
Dont expect overnight results. After six weeks, you should notice changes in how you look and feel.
* "Walking Tips," free from Walking magazine. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Walking Tips Sheet, 9-11 Harcourt St., Boston, MA 02116.
* Rockport Fitness Walking Test, a free brochure to gauge your fitness and start an individualized walking program ( ROCKPORT).
* The American Volkssport Assn. has some 500 clubs nationwide that run noncompetitive walking events outdoors ( 830-WALK).