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A Forced Thanksgiving March

Walking is a good way to burn off those extra holiday calories, but can you really make your guests do it?


You're hosting Thanksgiving dinner. The guests want to help.

"What can I bring?" they ask.

"A pair of sneakers," you reply, "because this year's festivities will include an organized walk. No constitutional, no dessert."

They probably will not believe you, so tell them the walk is nonnegotiable, the only variable being timing--before the meal, between courses or after the last slice of pumpkin pie has been inhaled.

When they invoke football games or bad knees, go preachy on them: "Thanksgiving is about more than sedentary gluttony, dysfunctional family angst and hours spent in front of the TV. It is about counting our blessings and doing what we can to make sure we're here with our loved ones for years to come."

Remind guests that with the national psyche still raw from sneak attacks and the national physique rotund from snack attacks, when better than Thanksgiving 2001 to launch a healthful holiday tradition?

"It aids digestion, it burns calories, it reduces stress, it clears the mind and gives everyone something to do together. What else do you need to know about the benefits of walking?" asks Bethesda, Md., exercise physiologist Amy Halverstadt, who has labored valiantly for several years to whip me into shape. She may yet succeed.

Your government--to wit, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases--describes the preferred gait: "Walk so that the heel of your foot touches the ground first. Roll your weight forward. Walk with your toes pointed forward. Swing your arms as you walk." (The heel-to-toe drill is not as simple as it sounds since most of us tend to clomp forward flatfooted. It does take practice.)

Walk regularly, say the feds, and you may well reduce blood cholesterol, lower blood pressure, increase cardiovascular endurance and boost bone strength.

"Walking is the best exercise in the whole world," burbles fitness demi-guru Richard Simmons, whose assorted walking audiotapes meld ego-affirming shtick with up-tempo music and repeated reminders to breathe, stand tall, suck in the abs and tuck in the butt.

But, warns Simmons, "you have got to do the stretches at the beginning. You have to warm up your legs, your hamstrings, your quads, your ankles. Your walk can only be efficient if you warm up before and cool down after.

"The host has to make sure everyone has proper shoes," says Simmons. "A walking shoe is great, a cross-trainer is better to protect all parts of the foot. Then bundle up and take your walk. The leader should have a whistle. Everyone has to got to carry their water, which is important. And you have to breathe: Inhale, exhale. After the first five minutes, you should punch up your stride. And you should tell yourself, 'I am worth it; I know I am going to feel better.'"

Then, the drill escalates.

"Now I am going to bring my arms a little bit above my shoulders. I won't clench my fists. You should shake out your hands as you go along. Circulation is No. 1," instructs Simmons. After 45 minutes outdoors, he says, the only thing that should separate you from the couch or the cranberry sauce is a cool down for those hamstrings, quads and legs.

"Walking really gets you in touch with you. A walk can be very spiritual and eye-opening. You can see a rainbow, or hear birds chirping. Walking can make you happy," Simmons says. True. But a forced march may seem a tad heavy-handed to guests who prefer more mellow activity, warns my dear friend Abby--a massage therapist, weaver and organic gardener from the People's Republic of Sonoma County.

"We always walk on Thanksgiving, but it's to celebrate being together, being outside, watching the sunset. It shouldn't be rushed, or do-this-do-that. You have to let people do what they want to do," she says. Nonjudgmentally, of course.

The intensity level "really depends on what your goals are," contends Halverstadt, who has not yet brought a whistle to our sessions. "If for one day you simply want to enjoy being with people who are very important to you, then taking a strenuous walk is not necessary. But if you view it as part of your long-term fitness program, get out there and walk."

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