We recently completed a get-healthy initiative at my work that encouraged employees to exercise by walking. My truly lame team finished way down in the final standings but, in a larger sense, we were all winners because we had spent eight weeks striding vigorously toward fitness. Not really. I probably weigh more now than when I started, and I know for a fact that I smell worse.
When the winning teams were announced, it was noted that as a company we had walked over 7 million miles during the previous two months. That’s equivalent to 280 circumnavigations of the globe. It’s as if we had walked to the moon and back 14 times. It’s like walking from New York to Los Angeles, turning left and heading to Peru, then boring into the Earth’s mantle and going halfway to the core, and then re-emerging to hike halfway to Venus. Any way you put it, it doesn’t make any sense.
As a runner for the last 30-some years, I’ve never had a lot of respect for walking. I guess I viewed it as the exercise of the weak and infirm, a great way to get to the men’s room perhaps but hardly a challenging physical regimen. Any sport that could be done by the elderly ladies around the retirement complex near my house was not for me.
Though I did spend numerous coffee breaks in recent weeks pacing up and down the road in front of my office like an expectant father, the only deliveries I saw were tractor-trailers backing up to the warehouse (less messy than the typical Caesarean but still smelling of diesel). I won’t say that I’ve gained a new appreciation for walking as exercise; I will admit, however, that my aging knees had better realize pretty soon that there’s a reason you don’t see many 220-pound sixty-year-olds sprinting down the street. We’re either dead or have adopted another workout habit.
Part of my problem with public walking is that, as a method of transportation and an exercise, it’s subject to misinterpretation by onlookers. Friends who drive past you in their cars will stop and ask if you need a ride. Other motorists look at you as a mobile information source, as if you’re circling the neighborhood in case they need directions, can’t find their lost cat or need an explanation of the local zoning codes.
Trying to make it look more like an exercise and less like a leisurely stroll does deter some of this. I’ve learned, for example, that moving your arms in a particular fashion will keep questioners at bay. If you adopt the motion of the race-walker, elbows bent and forearms punching the oncoming air, many observers will realize that you’re disturbed, and therefore best left undisturbed. If this doesn’t work, I try the stiff-armed march of the North Korean infantryman, lifting my rigid limbs high above my head as if about to cross the demilitarized zone. The next subdivision down from me remains on high alert.
Another deterrent to interruption is the iPod. Crank up your Who playlist to maximum volume and you won’t be able to hear the questions and taunts that are otherwise sent in your direction. Of course, you can’t hear oncoming vehicles either, but that’s their problem, not yours. If you get caught up in the song and start singing along — “Love! Reign o’er me!” — chances are good they’ll notice you one way or the other.
My wife used to belong to a martial arts group that occasionally practiced tai-chi in a public park. Most of the time, they remained under a sheltered picnic area but if the weather was nice, they’d sometimes break out this so-called “meditation walk,” where they’d pike around the lake at a slow, measured pace that was half-walking, half-Step-Forward-to-Repulse-Monkey. The kids playing basketball on a nearby court would tease them mercilessly while they practiced their forms in a fixed location, but as soon as the martial artists started marching methodically in a single file toward them, the fast breaks got really fast and tended to head in the direction of the park exit.
I’d be more than a little embarrassed to try this strategy (in fact, I’m generally humiliated to be seen in public at all). One of the biggest concerns with walking is what to do when you’ve reached the halfway point. Unless you’ve plotted out a circular route for yourself, there comes a time when you have to reverse your course. I’m always afraid someone is going to see me doing this.
There’s something inherently unnatural about suddenly turning on your heels and heading off into the opposite direction. It might be fine for exercise purposes, but it exhibits a certain indecisiveness in the real world, causing witnesses to wonder what you forgot. I try to get it over as quickly as possible, or otherwise make the most of it. I once took a stroll with two other family members and we agreed all turn at once, on cue, just as a school bus was passing. The sheer precision of the move left those kids dumbfounded.
I think, though, I’m going to continue walking as a physical activity. With fall right around the corner, it should be quite pleasant. It does clear your head and give you time to think. If I keep it up into the winter months, I’m going to have to consider some alternate venues. Some people from our office had taken to hiking around a nearby grocery store when the heat or rain got too bad during the summer, and that might be fun. Again, it seems like there might be concerns among store employees about what the hell you’re doing. I think if I circle the outer edge, cutting through the produce department and alternately picking up and putting back various melons and cabbages each time I pass, it might not look too weird.