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SPECIAL ISSUE: WALKING IN L.A.

Get moving. Here's why.

A simple brisk walk can help prevent heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes and more.

March 12, 2007|Regina Nuzzo | Special to The Times

REMEMBER fitness in the 1970s? All those aerobics classes, leotards and sweatbands, the endless jogging and velour track suits? Got to crank up that heart rate to 90% of maximum, experts told us. No pain, no gain.

But today a new, easygoing message reigns: Leave the spandex at home -- you don't have to sweat or even change your clothes. Simply take a walk. Aim for least 30 minutes of activity on most days of the week, experts now advise. Break it up into a few brisk-walking "snacks," if you prefer. Vigorous exercise is great, they say, but don't feel pressured.

What happened? Did experts notice that we weren't living up to their high-heart-rate expectations and decide, with resignation, to lower the bar? Or has the science of exercise evolved into something more subtle than, say, Richard Simmons' shorts?

Yes, and yes.

Public health officials are indeed desperate for us to get off our duffs, and they prefer to set minimum guidelines that don't scare us off. But, too, research over the last decade has shown that physical activity doesn't need to be vigorous to be beneficial. Brisk walking can help prevent cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes, researchers believe. A broader set of disorders -- breast cancer, depression, cognitive decline and sexual dysfunction, to name a few -- might also be helped by regular strolls around the block.

"Walking may be as close to a magic bullet as you'll find in modern medicine," says Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "If there was a pill that could lower the risk of chronic disease like walking does, people would be clamoring for it."

Walking is the ultimate no-fuss exercise. You don't need special training or equipment (though plenty of books and pedometer devices are available to help). Walking can get you from point A to point B in an earth-friendly, non-gas-guzzling way. It can be fine-tuned to your own fitness needs -- suitable for just-off-the-couch potatoes and adrenaline junkies alike.

And here's another big plus: Walking is fun, offering up an eye-opening view of a world normally glimpsed only as a car-window blur. What better way to notice the smell of the first summer barbecues, an old mural on the side of a hardware store, a pair of dueling mockingbirds?

"I have yet to walk where I haven't found even a little surprise," says Steve Hughart, president of the Sacramento Walking Sticks, a walking club of the American Volkssport Assn. "There are just amazing things that you don't see when you're driving."

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Walking's path

The road to modern exercise science started in the 1950s, when researchers found that London bus drivers who sat behind the wheel all day tended to suffer more heart attacks than their co-workers who walked around the double-deckers punching tickets. Researchers also quickly homed in on a good laboratory measure of physical fitness -- the amount of oxygen a body was capable of delivering to muscles during all-out physical exertion -- and they promoted vigorous exercise as the key to good health.

The American College of Sports Medicine's first exercise guidelines, released in 1975, encouraged people to exercise long and often, at 70% to 90% of maximum heart-rate reserve. (For a rough approximation of the upper range, subtract your age from 220 and multiply by 0.9 -- that's about 162 beats per minute for a 40-year-old.)

Ten years later, only about 20% of Americans met these standards. About 40% were still completely sedentary.

Then came a new era in exercise. Evidence was amassing that less-than-punishing exercise had its health benefits too (and not just for London bus employees). On the heels of an American Heart Assn. report acknowledging this fact, in 1995 the American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control came up with a brand-new exercise plan for Americans: Accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity -- walking, gardening, golfing, for example -- on most days of the week. The U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization soon followed with similar guidelines.

Suddenly, all this talk of maximum heart rate and vigorous "exercise" seemed so old-fashioned. The new buzz: bite-sized pieces of "physical activity." More and more reports showed up in scientific journals extolling the benefits of moderate exercise. Brisk walking and similar activities -- previously shunned by many exercise gurus as too wimpy to do much good -- were linked in large, long-term studies to lowered risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression.

How hard people exercised seemed to be less important than how long they were active. And, it seemed, you didn't even have to do all that exercise at the same time: Intermittent activity was as beneficial as long bouts of exercise.

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