Medicine For People!

January 2011: Walk!


Having trouble deciding on that New Year's Resolution? Here's my suggestion. Walk more! Walking is good for your heart. It reduces the risk of diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer's, fractures. It helps you lose weight. Still, for many the immediate benefit is the pure joy of movement. Soon enough we will be motionless for all time. What a joy to be alive and chugging along!

Walking Through the Ages

One of the many invisible advantages of our contemporary world is the low cost of transportation. While we may bemoan the annual cost of an automobile, most of us manage the $2000 to $5000 annual cost and think nothing of travelling a hundred miles or more in a day.

By contrast, in the early 1800's walking was the only transportation most people could afford. Many people walked several miles to work and thought nothing of it. Thomas de Quincey tells of leaving Samuel Taylor Coleridge's house one summer night in 1807, so excited he decided to travel home rather than sleep. He described details of the moonlit English countryside he passed through but did not find it noteworthy to mention that his mode of travel was walking. His forty mile walk was of no more novelty to him than our current transportation methods are to us.

Over-achieving Walkers

To make the news back then, you had to exert yourself. In 1851 a man named Richard Manks walked 1000 miles in a single 1000 hour period, outdoors in all weather. He was so worn out, he swore never to do it again. In 1801 Captain Robert Barclay Allardice won a bet by walking 90 miles in 20 hours. He made many other walks of 60 to over 100 miles, and was once clocked at a speed of 6.4 miles per hour for ten hours, about the same as the modern race-walking record for a similar distance.

Optimal Walking Technique

Whether walking is instinctive to humans, or whether we need to see adults show us how, who knows? We do know that there are better and worse ways to do it.

Arm Movement

Next, swing your arms. Notice that when you swing your arms while you walk, your hips rotate the opposite way. Your right hip swivels forward just as your left heel is about to contact the ground. Those hips have as easier time rotating with the counterforce of your arms going the opposite way.


If you are going through a garden, you move slowly, because your purpose is to enjoy the garden. When you are out to cover ground, however, you need to put the gas pedal down. The next time you walk, pay attention to your pace. You don't have to strut like a race walker to cover ground, just make those steps a little more frequent and you'll get to your destination more quickly.

Practical Walking

The more ground you can cover when you walk, the more often you'll find it practical to walk when completing errands, because it takes less time. You won't waste time looking for a parking place. And the more often you walk, the more conditioned you'll be to keep up that pace, to maintain that healthy stride, up hill and down. Your lungs and heart, now stronger, can power those muscular motors of your legs without tiring.

Note for Cyclists

I know a few cyclists who find their bodies more comfortable bicycling than walking. For you I modify my suggested New Year's Resolution suggestion. Bicycling similarly strengthens the body, gets us outdoors, and for me, anyway, makes shopping easier as I can carry groceries on the back of the bike. So go for it.

Note for Runners

For those of you who love to run, I salute you! You have a healthy disposition!

For those of you who do not run, just a suggestion. Aerobic activity has been shown time and again to improve health. Some people find that short runs, just ten or fifteen minutes several times a week, are effective in maintaining cardiovascular conditioning. Many find that favoring grass over concrete and asphalt prevents the knees from complaining.

So try it!

Fun Walks

  • Edge of the Day: Start before sunrise or after supper and enjoy the eternal change as the day and night perform their dance.
  • Short-cuts: Many streets are not paved, especially those leading to a bluff. Port Townsend's off-street pedestrian paths are well-marked. Explore them!
  • Geek's delight: You can count your paces per minute. What is your strolling pace, your high-gear pace? You can measure the length of your stride. How much does your stride length vary from low to high gear? Measure your speed over a mile or several miles. What does three miles per hour feel like, four miles per hour? What is your highest walking speed for a one mile measured walk? If in the mountains, how long does it take you to ascend a thousand vertical feet? What is your over-the-ground rate on a rough trail compared with a road?
  • Sing: Singing is one of my hobbies. When learning new music, sometimes the tempo of the music falls into the range of my walking pace, and I learn difficult rhythms by matching them to my steps. If you're not a singer, you can listen to music or your favorite radio show on your music player.
  • Time to think: Got a problem running through your head? A walk brings solitary time to think over that problem. One walker I know likes to memorize poetry and often does that while walking.
  • Time to connect: On your sunrise walks you'll see many couples on the streets, enjoying each other's company in silence or in conversation.


Walk: up hill and down, varying your pace, but never afraid to pour on the coals and push on into the future.

Bicycle: a great recreation, a wonderful way to do errands.

Run: Short or long, whatever you enjoy and your legs can tolerate.

Use your head!

While walking and other locomotion such as bicycling or running provide many benefits, don't make the mistake of jumping from a sedentary lifestyle to pushing yourself up a mountain in one day. Easy does it! I'd rather see you talk to your doctor about increasing exercise than see you overdo it and drop dead shoveling snow in your driveway, something that happens with fair frequency to people unaccustomed to aerobic activity.

Walk facing traffic! And for goodness sake, remember auto drivers cannot see dark objects at night. Be a bright object!

The Secret

The secret to success at any activity is to find something you enjoy. If you find no enjoyment in what you are doing, mull it over. You can think of a way to bring pleasure to everything you do.

Incorrect information about toe direction and arm swing was removed from this newsletter in September of 2013. DR



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.