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  By Michael O.L. Seabaugh, Ph.D
Copyright 2005 Santa Barbara News-Press 5/3/05
Fitness made simple: Walk!

"Who has time to get healthy?"

Or so goes the lament of harried baby boomers caught up in their ever-expanding schedules. Evidently they are not alone. A mere 3 percent of all Americans take the time to actually get healthy, according to a major Michigan State University study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The researchers determined there are four elements to a healthy lifestyle: Not smoking; eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis; maintaining a healthy weight; and exercising at least 30 minutes, five times a week.

You would think quitting smoking and losing belly fat would be the hardest for us hedonistic Americans. Not so. Eating our veggies and, even more so, exercising adequately, got the lowest scores.

I have to admit, quaffing five servings daily of the green stuff can be a challenge. But come on, who can't manage exercising 150 minutes a week?

OK, I admit that one is also a challenge. Hey, I'm busy! I've got to see patients, pay bills, sit on the 101, water my garden, write this column.

But there really is a simple, time-effective way to get that healthy amount of exercise while doing something most of us have to do every day anyway: Walk.

This pedestrian activity is considered a great way to get 30 minutes of cardio into our busy schedules. Some experts even say we don't have to do it all in one sprint. You can add up your foot time in smaller increments and still make the mark.

This is a no-brainer, especially when you consider the impressive list of benefits that accrue to vigorous and consistent walking: Reducing body fat, blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure; mitigating depression and mental decline; promoting stronger bones. Studies have shown that about three hours a week of walking cuts the risk of coronary heart disease by one third and type 2 diabetes by more than half.

I realize a great many of my fellow boomers are hip to this and have taken up "power walking" with the same gusto as their parents once took up bridge or the samba. Why is power walking so popular with my time-challenged peers? I suspect because it's a perfect opportunity to multitask.

A poll of my correspondents revealed that yes, a considerable portion of them do multitask while walking, and by far the biggest task undertaken is talking on the cell phone. One famous local Realtor (and Summerland walker) claims she efficiently attains her pedometer goal on her daily early morning walks while conferring by cell phone with her European clients jonesing for fabulous Santa Barbara real estate.

Close behind making phone calls is -- no surprise -- listening to the iPod. Then there is walking the dog or strolling with late-life kiddies or grandchildren. Madeline told me: "My 4-year-old twins are not as chic an accessory as an iPod, but it's definitely a cardio challenge to keep up with them."

Others report that they work on their posture while walking, dish with a best friend, even do Kegel exercises. One cheeky fellow said he multitasks while walking by wondering why anyone would do a "power walk" to begin with.

A psychologist by the wonderful name of Flint Sparks often uses his walking time to visualize goals as well as the processes that can get him there -- an effective technique he learned from the cancer patients he has worked with.

He may be multitasking, but he is leaning towards the other faction of walkers I heard from: the "walking meditators."

Carolyn walks "meditatively" each day: "It is all about being present, being aware of feeling my lungs fill up full and then completely emptying them, feeling the earth push back on my every footstep. Power walking is powerful because it keeps my head in the moment. I am not going through my laundry list of things to do; I take a wonderful walking vacation from all that."

Deep breathing is an obvious benefit of vigorous walking, and something most of us don't do in a conscious and fully healthful fashion. Leanna Doyle, Santa Barbara Pilates expert, tells her clients to exercise their "intercoastals" (the muscles in between the rib cage) while walking by breathing deeply into the rib cage and visualizing expanding the lungs "three dimensionally."

She points out that as we get older we tend to breathe more shallowly, which is the culprit for all kinds of health concerns. "How's that for multitasking?" she asks. "Just breathe!"

Another local health expert, certified somatic therapist Ann Brode, said just being in your body is task enough while walking. "Invite the body's very motion of walking to function like a moving massage," she says. Focus on moving freely, noticing how the body moves as one unit. "Feel the mechanical brilliance of your body's design, how it was perfectly calibrated to walk."

All of this multitasking -- from the spiritual to the profane -- is beneficial if it gets you out there moving.

And by the way, Santa Barbara physicians have put on their walking shoes. The Santa Barbara County Medical Society has partnered with other organizations to promote walking as a healthful antidote to obesity. They are championing the use of "stepmeters" to help motivate walkers. According to Dr. Dennis Baker, president of the Medical Society, "This is a low-tech, incredibly simple and effective tool for weight loss."

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. He welcomes your comments at healthspan@earthlink.net. Healthspan appears every Tuesday in Prime Time.

Michael O.L. Seabaugh, Ph.D.
PO Box 561
Summerland, CA 93067
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