Walk This Way
Whether competitive or social, walking brings seniors health, wealth and companionship.
By Brenda Rees 04/05/2013
It’s a cool brisk Saturday morning and Maggie Ritchie, 57, is warming up with the Pasadena Pacers, a group of runners who meet weekly for training and communal runs in and around the Rose Bowl and nearby Arroyo. Ritchie, however, isn’t joining the marathon 10-mile challenge or other fast-moving groups. She’s making a five-mile journey into the Arroyo Seco with the walkers, a small band of Pacers who want the outdoor exercise and camaraD- erie without the running.
Ritchie started the exercise regime with her husband, Dave, in 2006 when he weighed 325 pounds. (“We tried to get him on The Biggest Loser, but that didn’t happen.”) Back then, she says, the Sunland couple routinely walked the Rose Bowl loop “every chance we could.”
Dave eventually dropped the weight (diet played a big part) and then was bitten by the running bug. Today, he does Iron Man marathons, among other grueling races. Maggie, too, likes the thrill of competition but prefers to enroll in the walking categories now found alongside most 5Ks, 10Ks and even marathons. “I like walking. You get to see more, check out the scenery and I love moving outside,” she says as she hikes up a dirt path to a point with an overview of the creek bed where a few mallards splash. “I hate seeing seniors not moving. I want to keep doing this when I’m 90.”
Ritchie may get her wish.
More seniors are lacing up their walking shoes and hitting the sidewalks, pathways and trails around them. In doing so, they are reducing their risks of some diseases, increasing vitality and maybe even extending their lives. Walking, as a prime source of exercise for older folk, is on the rise. According to a CDC National Health Survey, which compared walkers in 2005 to those in 2010, the number of 45-to-64-year-old walkers increased from 55.6 to 62.2 percent. Among those 65 and older, walkers rose from 50 percent to 53.7 percent in the same time period.
The survey also shows a steady upswing over the years of walkers with chronic conditions such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes — symptoms of all these have been found to be relieved by regular walking programs. And a recent study by professors at the University of Pittsburgh showed that walking may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.” Walking is one of the best forms of exercise and is what your body was designed to do,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, an internationally known health expert in the field of integrative medicine. This month, Weil kicks off National Walking Day on April 3 with his 2013 Walkabout, a 28-day campaign to encourage walking each day for 30 minutes (sign up at orthaheelusa.com/walkabout).
Walking for exercise is the ultimate no-brainer, continues Weil. “You can walk almost anywhere, any time and there is no special skill, training or equipment needed — all you need is the right footwear,” he says (see sidebar on selecting the right walking shoes). “Importantly for seniors, among all forms of aerobic exercise, walking carries the least risk of injury.”
While walking can be done anywhere from neighborhood parks to indoor malls, the great outdoors seems to offer the most long-lasting inspiration. A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity shows that older adults who engage in outdoor physical activity — including walking — exercised longer and more often than those working out indoors. Chalk up one more for Mother Nature.
Walking benefits more than your muscles and cardiovascular system; it also helps your brain, according to Tom Strafaci, a physical therapist and personal trainer with offices in Arcadia and Pasadena, who presents physical fitness programs in conjunction with Huntington Hospital. “Yes, ears and feet work together — depth perception. The brain loves making those connections when we walk,” he says. “So many seniors are afraid to walk because of their balance, but it’s the best thing to do for balance.” In fact, says Strafaci, the act of walking — swinging arms, moving in a rhythm, breathing in and out — helps the brain create new pathways and connections. “When people say their mind feels clearer after a walk, there is a biological reason for it,” he says.
Despite the near-miraculous claims for walking — and a recent Harvard Medical School study that indicates that lack of physical activity kills as many people as smoking in this country — many seniors still have countless reasons for not embracing the exercise. “Inertia is a powerful force; we like to continue the way that we’ve been,” explains Weil, adding that mental and emotional factors often keep seniors on the couch. “If people are depressed, the last thing they feel like doing is moving, even though that activity is probably what would most benefit them. Perceived lack of time is another excuse that prevents people from walking.”
“I think I’ve heard every excuse in the book,” agrees Dr. Alice Lacy, an Arcadia internist who treats primarily elderly patients. “ ‘The weather is too cold,’ ‘My back hurts,’ ‘I get plenty of other exercise,’ ‘I don’t want to fall down.’ You name it, I’ve heard it.” Lacy says she’s constantly proselytizing about the benefits of exercise to her senior patients — some eventually respond, some never do. The ones who’ve heeded her advice include a diabetic patient who lost 40 pounds after starting a walking program. “She was concerned for her blood pressure and her knees hurt her so bad,” she says. “We got walking poles to help give her a sense of balance and coordination. That was three years ago and she still walks — no poles anymore. And I have reduced her blood pressure medicine too. All because of her walking.”
Lacy urges reluctant walkers to find a partner, so the activity is social as well as physical. “If someone comes and knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, let’s go for our walk,’ you might get up off that chair,” she says.
Motivation was a little trickier for Tom Mawhinney, 83, of Eagle Rock. After his left knee was replaced more than a decade ago, his doctor told him to start using it. “I don’t like walking,” he concedes, even though wife Jean, 80, has been a regular walker since 1983. “She makes me feel guilty if I don’t go with her.”
Mawhinney finally discovered that walking in his quiet tree-lined Eagle Rock neighborhood certainly had unexpected payoffs — in feline form. Now known as “The Cat Man” in his ’hood, Mawhinney always goes on his 30-minute walk with a bag of cat treats. “I used to have five cats. Now I’m down to two. Maybe there’ll be more one day,” he says during a routine afternoon stroll. He stops by a house on the corner. Shaking his bag of treats, he hollers, “Mimi! Mimi!” and right on cue, out comes a handsome orange-and-white feline looking for a prize. Cat owners smile and wave at the couple. “I don’t mind walking so much now because of the cats,” says Mawhinney. “Walking wouldn’t be as much fun without them.”
Is Walking Enough?
For all the wonders of walking, there are things it just cannot help. “Walking is a great cardiovascular exercise that takes care of seniors’ endurance, but older adults need to strength-train muscles,” says Elaine Cress, a professor of kinesiology and a researcher at the University of Georgia Institute of Gerontology.
Indeed, the CDC in 2008 recommended that seniors pick up weights or resistance bands at least three times a week. “Walking doesn’t work the front of the leg or the booty muscles,” says Cress, explaining that people lose muscle mass as they age. Strength, along with endurance and flexibility, are keys to keeping fit bodies — especially those of seniors — in top form.
Cress has heard complaints from seniors when she tells them to add weights to their regimen, but she has an answer to that. “You have the time,” she says. “You just have to bite the bullet and find how to incorporate weights into your life. I think the greatest bargain, personally, is the YMCA.”
However seniors add weight-training to their day, Cress stresses not to do it while walking. “I see walkers with ankle weights or weights strapped to arms or wrists and they are just terrible,” she says. “You can damage your knees, counter-balance yourself and wreck shoulders. Don’t use them on walks. Never.”
Personal trainer Strafaci recommends that seniors also avoid walking with Fido. Dogs could bolt or grapple with another dog, which could knock an older person off balance. “You also can’t walk effectively, moving your arms back and forth, when you are holding a leash,” he says.
Finally, even though you burn extra calories walking, walking shouldn’t be viewed as a weight-loss tool alone, adds Strafaci. “People shouldn’t expect to melt off weight just by walking,” he says. When people “get into the exercise habit” he says, they naturally start eating better, which will ultimately help them drop the extra weight.
But make no mistake, stresses Strafaci. The pluses of walking are tremendous — better coordination, energy and less pain.
Back on the trail, Ritchie is nearing the end of her morning walk. She thinks about an upcoming race and then remembers the first time she walked in competition — she completed the Los Angeles Rock and Roll Marathon when she was 55 years old. On her birthday. “I love having something to look forward to, like a race. Gets me motivated to keep walking,” she says. “I can’t think of a day when I didn’t enjoy my walk.”