Whether competitive or social, walking brings seniors health, wealth and sunshine.
By Brenda Rees
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 5-mile journey into the Arroyo with the walkers, a small band of Pacers who want the outdoor exercise and camaraderie without the running.
Ritchie started the exercise 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, 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 bit by the running bug. Today, he does Iron Man marathons among other grueling races. Ritchie, too, likes the thrill of competition, but prefers to enroll in the walking categories now found on 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 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 to hit the sidewalks, pathways and trails – in doing so, they are potentially reducing risks of some diseases, increasing vitality and maybe even extending their lives.
Walking, as a prime source of exercise for older folk, is on an upward trend. According to a CDC National Health Survey, which compared walkers in 2005 to 2010, the number of 45-64 year old walkers increased from 55.6 to 62.2 percent. Walkers 65 and older rose from 50 percent to 53.7 percent in the same time period.
In addition, the survey also shows a steady upswing over the years of walkers with chronic conditions such as hypertension, arthritis and diabetes – all conditions that have been found to diminished symptoms with regular walking programs.
Incidentally, a recent study by professors at the University of Pittsburg 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, 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 on at weilbeing.com/2013-walkabout-signup).
Walking 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 the best way to buy 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, walking outdoors, however, seems to hold the most long-lasting inspiration. A recent study from International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, show that older adults who engage in physical outdoor activity—including walking – exercised longer and more often that those working out indoors. Nature trumps again.
Walking is also a brain exercise, according to Tom Strafaci, a physical therapist/personal trainer with offices in Arcadia and Pasadena, who often presents physical fitness programs to the community in conjunction with Huntington Hospital. “Eyes, ears and feet working 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 minds feel clearer after a walk, there is a biological reason for it,” he says.
Motivation 101 or How To Make it a Habit
Despite the near-miraculous claims of walking – and the latest study out of Harvard Medical School which indicates that lack of physical activity kills as many people as smoking in this country – seniors still have countless reasons why they won’t embrace 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 also 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 primarily treats 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 drumming facts and exercise benefits to her senior patients – some eventually respond, some never do. Lacy talks about 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,” says Lacy. “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 highly recommends reluctant walkers find a partner so walking 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 admits 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, however, discovered that walking his quiet tree-lined Eagle Rock neighborhood certainly had its 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 they’ll be more one day,” he says during a routine afternoon walk. 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 do. “Walking is a great cardiovascular exercise that takes care of senior’s endurance, but older adults need to strength train muscles,” says Elaine Cress, a professor of kinesiology and researcher in 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 bootie muscles,” says Cress who explains that as people age they lose muscle mass. Strength, along with endurance and flexibility, are keys to keeping bodies – especially seniors – working at top potential.
Cress has heard complaints from seniors when she tells them to add weights to their regiment, but she counters. “Because of longevity we now are living a full five hours a day more, we are living 29-hour-days,” she says. “You have the time. 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 weights into their day, Cress stresses not to include them in their 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 also recommends seniors shouldn’t walk with Fido. Dogs could bolt, there could be a conflict with another dog which could put 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 weight loss just by itself, 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 drop the extra weight.
Make no mistake, stresses Strafaci. The plusses of walking are tremendous – coordination, energy and a life of 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.”
Putting Your Best Food Forward
When it comes to selecting the right walking shoes, don’t be a Frankenstein or a Marie Antoinette. Newbies often think they need big heavy heels or an ultra-cushiony inside for their sidewalk forays. Big mistake.
According to a study by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), 72 percent of Americans say that foot pain prevents them from exercising, says health expert Dr. Andrew Weil. “Without proper footwear walking can be painful, making it difficult to maintain an active lifestyle,” he says. Good shoes can help reluctant walkers stand up and start moving.
Finding the perfect shoe is all a matter of arches, explains Mike Gonzalez, manager of Run With Us, a Pasadena athletic shoe store that’s been around for 13 years. “The first thing we do is watch how a customer walks, that tells us how high or low their arches are,” he says. “People with flat feet can put extra stress on their knees which can travel to their lower back if they aren’t wearing the right shoes.”
Walking shoes need to be light and flexible – and that notion can go against the grain for some seniors who think they need sturdy, thick shoes. “Today’s shoes use materials that create a lighter shoe without losing the integrity of the structure. They reduce weight without sacrificing support.”
Take a look at the shoe in consideration. Is the heel half the size of the running shoes? Does it easily bend in the forefoot (not middle)? Does it feel light but solid? All hallmarks of a good shoe. “Most of our walkers choose running shoes because running shoes are created for so many foot types,” says Gonzalez. “They are light and help feet breathe.”
Not only do feet breathe, they can also swell up when you’re out for a 30 minute neighborhood jaunt. That’s why Gonzalez recommends folks “size it up” and buy a walking shoe that is ½ to a full size bigger than they usually wear.
Socks are also important to walkers – make sure they are synthetic says Gonzalez. Cotton will hold moisture and who wants sticky, wet feet? In addition to a wide variety of synthetic socks, the store also sells loose knit socks specifically designed for diabetics.
All in all, expect to pay $95-$150 for a good pair of walking shoes. Walking shoes, if used regularly, can last from 6 to 8 months. Gonzalez says walkers will know when it’s time to get a new pair by paying attention to their bodies. “You’ll discover a new ache or a pain that you never had before, that’s a good indication your shoes aren’t supporting you,” he says.