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Exercise made easy: The hidden power of taking a walk

Exercising more is the top 2020 resolution among Massachusetts residents. Here’s how to stay on course.

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If you haven’t used your gym membership since those first days of January when everything seemed possible, if your expensive workout clothes sit in a pile in the closet with the store tags staring back at you disapprovingly, if your rock-ribbed determination to usher in a fit, new you in 2020 is now as flagging as your abdominal muscles, don’t despair. Come over to the walking club. Here, big problems get smaller, step by step.

In the brutal January cold last year, my wife and I started a new routine of going for a brisk, hourlong walk every day. Maintaining healthy habits is all about closing the potential escape doors of self-rationalizing. If we had started this routine when the weather was great, we would have been more likely to lose our resolve when conditions got bad. By starting when the temperatures were most punishing, we were sealing that escape door. Just as swinging with two bats in the on-deck circle makes a batter feel lighter when holding just one at the plate, April rain feels a lot less intimidating when you’ve already trudged through a February blizzard.


Why walking? Lots of research shows it offers the best mix of health benefits with a low risk of injury. Think of it another way: How many people do you know who became voluble CrossFit evangelists only to go quiet after being hobbled by injuries? And how many had to have their knees scoped because of walking routines? (Sure, it happens, but it’s rare compared with most other forms of exercise. Still: People, please shovel your sidewalks!)

I think the world of my primary care doctor, but he can be a hard guy to please. Several years ago, during my annual checkup, he nudged me to increase my exercise. The following year, I couldn’t wait to tell him I had followed his advice and had returned to biking, logging just as many miles as I had during my 20s. “Biking,” he replied with a long sigh, “can be so dangerous.” Vigorous walking, however, gets his unqualified approval.


I’ve found that, for me, startup costs are the biggest hurdle to regular exercise. Do I have to drive to a health club? Buy expensive equipment I might not use? Deal with the hassle of bungee-cording my bike to my trunk and driving to someplace where I can ride without having to dodge cars?

When it comes to walking, all I have to do is step outside my door. The only equipment I’ve had to invest in? Lined pants and wool socks.

Because my wife and I have schedules that change from day to day, we’ve generally been able to keep up the routine of walking together by being flexible on the time: morning, midday, or evenings. There aren’t many weeks when we’ve hit our goal of walking all seven days, but we’ve probably averaged five. And we’ve found that walking together is a great way to catch up with each other away from distractions, while benefiting from the magical powers of fresh air.

Of course, walking also works fine as a solo activity, and is adaptable to even the most restrictive schedules. You can do it during your lunch hour and return to your desk without having to worry about either showering or stinking up the place. If you can’t commit an hour a day, just do what you can. A study of women published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine dispelled the popular “10,000 steps” myth, finding that participants who took just 4,400 steps a day had significantly lower mortality rates during a follow-up period than those who were less active.


If weight loss is your goal, you probably won’t get there just with walking. But I’ve found it’s great for waistline maintenance, and if I’m exercising regularly, I’m more likely to eat sensibly. The cardiovascular benefits from all this regular exercise are especially noticeable when I walk up the steep hill at the end of our regular route. It no longer leaves me winded.

Not that there aren’t some traps with walking. During a period of business travel out West last spring, I was determined to keep up my regimen. My hotel outside Denver sat in a bland office park, next to a golf course, so I took my walk along the paved path hugging the perimeter of the sprawling course. After I’d been on foot for half an hour, the golf pro sped up to me in his cart and demanded to know what I was doing. When I told him I was getting in a walk, he looked at me incredulously before insisting that I hop into his cart. “The ways these guys play,” he said, “you’re going to get hit in the head and killed, and they’ll go right back to their game.”


The dangers of exercise. I could almost hear my doctor’s sigh.


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Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail him at neil.swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.