The oldest mode of transportation known to man, walking is more than
just a low-impact exercise solution. For either solace and reflection
or socializing with friends, the simple stroll offers clarifying, rejuvenating
benefits for both body and mind. And, especially for seniors, regular
walking just might be the single most effective anti-aging activity.
“My feet are my only carriage”
The most laidback of active pursuits, walking is often overshadowed by its more outgoing cousins—hiking, jogging and running. But walking is the most inviting and accessible way to get exercise: It is a lot easier on the feet and joints than the faster-paced alternatives. Plus it has the benefit of requiring no gym membership or equipment, just the will to get out and about, and, of course, a comfortable pair of shoes.
Before you slip on your sneakers, however, you need to prepare for a new walking routine, particularly if you have been relatively inactive up to now and especially if you’re old enough for AARP to know your name. Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who teaches at UPitt’s School of Medicine, refers to people newly motivated for fitness as “sudden exercisers.” She warns that jumping into an exercise program without preparation can lead to arthritis flare-ups and injuries. That’s because sudden exercisers are “using muscles and tendons that they haven’t used before or for quite some time,” Wright explains, “and they end up sore or with a torn muscle.”
Ruth Bohlken, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging in Wichita, Kansas, says, “The key is to start slow, and progress on a regular basis.” Before starting a walking-oriented exercise program, Bohlken recommends wearing a pedometer, a small device that counts every step, to gauge your current activity level. In the first week, she advises wearing a pedometer from the time you get up until bedtime to determine how many steps you normally take. Then, for the second week, she suggests adding 10% to the number of steps averaged during the previous week, working the additional movement into your daily activities. This routine should continue until your average is 10,000 steps per day, which “seems to be the magic number” as a proper level of exercise, Bohlken says. She also recommends adding strength and balance training to your routine. “If a person doesn’t have the strength to get up out of a chair, they won’t be walking very far,” she says, “and if balance is impaired, they have a higher risk of falling.”
If you are accustomed to walking on a regular basis you may not have to work your way up to an active level, but don’t think you’re immune to injuries or ailments. Frequent exercisers, Wright points out, “get a lot of overuse injuries, meaning you’re doing the same thing every day at the same intensity and you’re not mixing it up. If you walk the same hills or path everyday, and don’t mix it up with cycling or swimming or walking an alternate path, then you can get overuse injuries, which amount to tendon or muscle aches. Overuse injuries comprise almost 70% of injuries in people over 50.”
To avoid injury, Wright recommends heat in the form of hot showers, soothing creams or arthritis wraps, those wearable heating pad devices. After exercise, she encourages use of that old athletic standby—ice. She also advises eating fish, particularly salmon or whitefish, for its omega-3 oils to decrease inflammation. Another alternative is 1,000 mg of omega-3s daily, although Wright explains that it must be taken for 12 weeks “to see an effect.”
What makes walking worth the inevitable aches and pains are the health benefits. Bohlken observes that older adults who exercise regularly “are physically younger, and their functional capabilities are much greater than their inactive counterparts. They travel, volunteer and engage in a variety of social activities, in addition to their day-to-day activities.” She says to “think of the arteries and veins in our bodies as a plumbing system. With regular exercise, the pipes stay open, and blood flows unobstructed to all the muscles. But without an increase in heart rate, the pipes begin to clog.” This leads to many kinds of health problems, the most serious being heart attack and stroke. Bohlken notes that walking is a weight-bearing exercise that is “beneficial to lower-body strength and the skeletal structure. Our bones and muscles adapt to [reasonable] physical stresses placed upon them by becoming stronger.”
Strolling the Mall
One popular modern-day spin on the timeless practice of walking for exercise is mall walking. Since malls are sheltered and climate-controlled, and offer a consistently flat surface, they are ideal for those who want to walk regularly without facing the elements. In order to witness mall walkers in their natural habitat, Energy Times went to Crossgates Mall in Albany, New York, one of the state’s largest shopping centers, for a morning stroll.
Spread out over two stories, Crossgates looks like a long, slightly bent tree branch with extended straightaways. A wintertime pre-hours walk makes a mall a different place before the regular crowds show up. First, parking is widely available close to any entrance. Inside, footsteps echo on the floors, creating a brief sense of abandonment. The main corridor, however, reveals occasional flurries of activity in front of shuttered stores—the walkers are making their rounds. Although there’s everyone from the young mother swiftly pushing her toddler in a stroller to the elderly man listening to headphones as he cruises along, most of the walkers fall into two categories—women alone or in small groups around the general range of 35 to 65 and couples in the range of 50 to 70.
Though they politely declined to give their last name or ages, Mike and Judy of nearby Colonie were eager to talk about mall walking. Dressed in sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers, the trim couple noted that some fellow walkers are “very focused” and move at a brisk pace while others keep to a more leisurely rate, making the outing as much about socializing as exercise. Mike explained, “Some people like to catch up with friends as they burn a few calories, but we tend to think of it as a light workout.” And while some walkers stick to the bottom floor, many seem to favor the second level, which benefits from A-frame skylights. Judy pointed out that “the upper floor is nicer and brighter, and if it’s raining or snowing, it makes you even happier to be inside.”
A full loop around one level of the mall is about one mile, making it relatively easy for walkers to track how far they’ve gone, though some wear pedometers. The most hardcore enthusiasts go the extra distance by incorporating the short side hallways into their route. As the morning progresses, and the mall becomes increasingly populated, the earliest walkers leave, while many of the more casual saunterers shift into shopping mode. By the time 10:30 rolls around, almost all signs of mall walking are gone, and the massive structure returns to its day job as a bustling palace of commerce.
For those embarking on a mall-walking routine, both Bohlken and Wright emphasize the importance of maintaining a moderately quick pace. Bohlken suggests the “talk test.” As they walk, an older adult “should be able to carry on a conversation. Now, if they can sing while walking, they need to pick up the pace.” Wright concurs, “It’s better to be strolling leisurely than sitting on the couch, but for it to really affect your body, you need 30 minutes of brisk exercise.”
“If you’re going to spend the time out, you might as well kill two birds with one stone—talk to your friends, and help your heart,” says Wright. “You are never too old to start—you just have to step up off of the couch and do it.”