Born to, um, walk? It might not sound sexy, and no one writes songs about it, but for many people looking to stay healthy, walking is the new running.
"Walking is great because anyone can do it, you can do it anywhere and you don't need any specialized equipment...shoes excepted," says 57- year-old Richard Inman, a plastic surgeon in Mississauga who typically power walks at least three times a week and adds a weekly swim to his routine.
Dr. Inman is typical of boomer walkers. He used to be a runner and loves to be active, but finds running too tough on his body. He's an intense walker and works once a week with walking coach Lee Scott of Wow Power Walking, whose motto is "walk your butt off." Ms. Scott keeps him in good form and highly motivated.
"Most people have the misconception that we are strolling along," says Dr. Inman. "Some of our elite walkers will finish a full marathon around five hours flat....walking!" He himself race-walked until recently, when an old motorcycle injury caught up with him.
Dr. Inman walks for at least an hour each session, and usually covers about eight km. As a doctor, he's well aware of the health benefits of walking - both physical and mental.
"It's weight bearing, so it's good for bone density, which is a universal problem with aging," he says. "It is used, by me and others, as one aspect of regaining, and maintaining, a healthy body weight. Walking plus sensible eating equals weight that's easier to manage. This typically has huge downstream benefits, such as better levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar control."
Regular brisk walking can be a great way to reduce medication needs, even for people who have potentially serious illnesses. "I have a family history of hypertension so still require meds, but many people find their requirements are less with regular exercise," says Dr. Inman. The University of Ottawa Heart Institute uses brisk walking as one the elements in its rehabilitation program for heart patients. They say that people who don't exercise regularly have twice the risk for heart disease compared to those who do.
One of the difficulties with walking as fitness is that it's easy to go too slowly. That's where Lee Scott comes in. She trains people to walk for fitness. "If you really commit, you are going to see change. If you work on form and do speed intervals, every single person gets faster."
Like Dr. Inman, Ms. Scott used to run. Due to a nagging injury, she switched to power walking and has been passionate about it ever since. She coaches groups of walkers through Wow Power Walking in Toronto's west end and competes in marathons as a walker. "I firmly believe that once you are over 50, walking is better for you," says Ms. Scott, who is just about to reach that milestone.
It's about four times less weight on the joints, she says. You might not shed as many pounds as you do with running, but you can if you work hard and eat sensibly. "Usually walking tones you up and you drop a size. If you want to lose more weight than that, you need to combine it with better eating habits," she says.
For those who love the buzz of entering races and beating their friends, walking offers that too. Almost every running race in North America now has a walking division, says Ms. Scott. "This is not strolling with a knapsack. Look at the demographic. That's where it's going.
"Boomers are pretty competitive. They love the fact that they can be timed against others doing the same thing in their age category," says Ms. Scott, who recently competed in the Big Sur Marathon in California.
Dr. Inman fondly remembers fondly beat the competition in his race-walking days. "The best moments were in some half marathons when I would catch, and then pass, groups of runners...you should see the looks on these guys' faces....priceless."
You could call him born again. "Like most people who've found something that they believe in, I encourage non-walkers to consider taking it up. It's a natural progression for the many runners who give it up because of injuries, and it's a great way for people who haven't traditionally been active to start," he says.
Power up your walk
To power-walk correctly and avoid injury, says Lee Scott, there are four progressions:
1. Bring arms up as if you're going for a run. This automatically makes your walking softer.
2. Make your stride really short; increase the cadence. Now you're basically walking faster with a short stride. "Think of yourself gliding along, rolling from heel to toe."
3. Focus on squeezing your butt. Visualize pulling elbows back, not punching forward.
4. To progress to race walking, add in the hip rotation.
Once your form is correct, Ms. Scott suggests walking briskly for 30 to 60 minutes, three or four times a week. Make one of these a speed workout (walk as fast as you can to, say, the fire hydrant and then slow back down. Repeat throughout the walk) and for another one, add some hills.
"You have to have high intensity for spurts to make physiological changes and burn carbohydrates," says Ms Scott. Warning: Don't use weights while you walk, as this increases your chance of getting injured.