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Hitting the Pavement for Fitness

Run or walk? Decisions, decisions...

By Roger M. Williams

As a retiree in search of exercise, you might ask yourself, should I run or should I walk? That question puzzles millions of people who want to develop and maintain a healthy regimen without stressing their hearts or joints.

Although the run-or-walk issue sounds obscure, it’s far from that. It is discussed, and debated, from coast-to-coast among runners and walkers of varying ages (as well as among medical and scientific researchers). Not that the two groups dislike each other, they  just have different outlooks.

Although clubs formed for either running or walking remain plentiful, those encompassing both seem to be the trend almost everywhere. And why not? For all except single-minded devotes, medical experts, and dedicated racers, the activities are pretty much two peas in the same exercise pod.

In fact, growing numbers of trainers and other fitness advisers advocate a combination of running and walking—especially for the elderly and for any other seniors who are just beginning exercise of this kind. Stephanie Atwood, a certified professional trainer in Northern California’s East Bay area, has her least fit clients start by running only one minute, then walking one minute, and repeating the sequence. “Almost anybody can run for a minute,” she observes. Speed and distance at this stage are not important. Setting a pattern and realizing that it can be accomplished is.

From there, Atwood says, many of the seniors she trains dramatically increase their ratio of running minutes to walking minutes: “They get to four-to-one, or a good deal beyond that. Some even do marathons by alternating running and walking.” (There is no shame nowadays in not finishing a marathon non-stop like an Olympian. What counts is giving one’s best effort.)

Bill Stokes, a triathlon competitor in Springfield, Illinois, is in the elite category of runners. Yet he says he’s “a strong advocate of run-walk to build up endurance and capacity. Because the body develops muscle memory, you need to actually run a certain distance—like a mile—to know you can do it, and run-walk is the best technique for getting there.”

That technique, Stokes points out, enables recreational runners to avoid a common pitfall: running for too long without easing off. “You should run until just before you’re feeling tired, not just after, then walk while you recover and are ready to run again.” Stokes himself resorts to straight walking for another purpose—“to help me loosen up after hard training; it’s better than simply resting.”

Back to some basics about each of these two choices. Almost regardless of age, if you’re in decent to good physical condition, running—what we’d all consider jogging, not racing—is a safe way to exercise. You of course want to avoid extremely hot weather, exhausting distances, and hills that leave you gasping for breath. Minor health problems, like pulled muscles, can generally be avoided or minimized. Although seniors may fear injury, the benefits of running outweigh the risks.

In fact, Jane Brody, the longtime Personal Health writer for The New York Times, concluded several years ago, that “overall, people who jog, including those with major cardiac risk factors, are less likely to have a heart attack in the long run than if they had not been joggers.”

Brody added, by way of explanation, that, “centuries ago it was commonly thought that the heart was limited to a certain number of beats and that those who used them up too fast would die young. We now know a lot better. The heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle in the body, exercising it makes it stronger.”

Walking, even at a fast clip, obviously puts less strain on both the heart and joints; depending on one’s physical condition as well as plain preferences, that may make it a better option.

Like running, walking for exercise can be done at various speeds over various distances and—unlike running—with different mechanics. Walkers can stroll; pick up the pace to break a sweat and get the heart pumping harder; go at something like full speed in what’s called power walking; or speed along like race walkers you may have seen in the Olympics, who go at a rate of just over six minutes per mile. All of those variations will “burn” calories and strengthen that heart muscle. And all will yield some sense of accomplishment and physical well-being.


Safety tips for runners and walkers

  • Check with your doctor before beginning your walking or running routine.
  • Walk or run with a buddy if possible, especially initially until you determine your fitness level.
  • Wear appropriate shoes—they make all the difference. If possible, get expert advice from your local running store.
  • Wear clothes that make you highly visible when walking outdoors.
  • Walk facing traffic so you can anticipate what’s coming your way.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings. Depending on the weather, be careful of ice and pooled water.  Be careful of cracks in the pavement, as well as human hazards such as those speedy bike riders.
  • Don’t wear headphones—they diminish awareness of your surroundings.
  • Carry a cell phone and an ID, especially if you are exercising alone.


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