After the ballyhoo is over, the last elliptical machine has extracted the last drop of sweat, the last mile has been jogged and the last health-club payment has been made, it may come out that the best exercise is the cheapest and easiest — just plain walking.
Radical idea? Walking? It's not hard enough, you say? Doesn't require any special, hard-won skills? Doesn't bust your hump enough? Doesn't give you anything to brag about?
Yet maybe the growing hordes of walkers are onto something.
Like Doug Fraser of Phoenix, walkers are a quiet bunch, given to understatement about their gentle passion.
"I really enjoy my walking. I'm outdoor-tuned. There are all kinds of places I can walk, right out my front door," says Fraser. "I live a life of simplicity. I love the fresh air, and even the sprinkles of rain don't stop me. I like it."
After he describes how walking is only moderately aerobic and probably won't get you your 20 minutes of significant aerobic heart-pounding, he gets to the real meat: He used to be very into running and tennis but "they were very destructive to my knees."
What did he do? He walked. And guess what. A few days before he went under the knife for a long-scheduled knee surgery, he realized his knees didn't hurt anymore.
"I called them up and stopped the surgery. I think, in walking, the other ligaments and muscles took over and took the pressure off the torn ligament, so it repaired."
Now that his knees are OK, Fraser can continue with low-impact workouts, including bicycling and cross-country skiing, he says.
What is it about walking, anyway? After all, you're doing something you learned at age 1, and it's nothing more than moving your legs back and forth while swinging your arms, an act that propels you forward at about 3 mph.
"Well, you get fresh air. You do it outside. You release stress," says personal trainer Carol Lee Rogers of Ashland.
Walking puts the lower body and cardio-pulmonary system through a moderate workout, Rogers notes, and with ski poles, you give the upper body something to do that's good for it."
Walking also gives you load-bearing exercise, something missing from bicycling, swimming and some other endeavors. Your whole weight is being pulled by gravity onto the muscles, joints and tendons of legs, glutes and lower back, so it's nature's way (nature didn't foresee the motor vehicle) of giving us what we need to stay healthy while getting us where we need to go.
Low-impact, load-bearing workouts, notes Laurie Evans, fitness director of Ashland Family YMCA, get more important as you age because the impact gently strengthens muscles and bones, which is what it takes to protect against osteoporosis or bone loss.
In her "Keeping Fit" class, Evans takes a mostly older group on a half-hour walk (preceded by a half-hour of stretching) on a loop of the neighboring soccer field and mobile-home park — and she plans to do a conversion chart, adding up everyone's mileage so it reaches across the U.S. map to Washington, D.C.
Her instructions are minimal. Start slowly, gradually increase your heart rate and respiration, let yourself break a sweat at the peak of the workout, walk naturally with your arms swinging in a normal fashion, striking on the heel and rolling to the ball of your foot, then pushing off, just as you learned as a toddler.
You don't need to push it, Evans adds, but "do make sure there's a little pushing and challenge to the body." Going up a gentle hill will automatically increase your heart rate and respiration, and coming down will increase your load-bearing.
"Notice after a few weeks, it gets easier, but if you walk faster, not to where it bothers your knees, you continue to get the good workout," says Evans.
In walking, you need only one piece of equipment, a good pair of walking or running shoes.
Having just completed a 192-mile trek across England, Laura Jones, a physical education teacher at Southern Oregon University, underlines the benefits of load-bearing exercise and open-air breathing, noting that it will prevent the "fell-and-broke-her-hip" phenomenon.
How? Many times, older people don't fall and break their hip, she notes. What happens is their hip has degenerated to the point that "she broke her hip, then fell."
Like most lovers of walking, Jones uses it as transportation around town and praises its unquantifiable inner benefits.
"Being outside in beautiful sunshine and fresh air, you take deeper breaths. It's rhythmic — step, step, step. It gets meditative, and your breathing is coordinated with your steps."
Such exercise, Jones adds, is called a "closed physical action," meaning that you know what's going to happen next. In an open action, like soccer, you don't know what's coming. The closed actions tend to be more peaceful, she says, and that reduction of stress is healthy.
"I don't know of anyone who's ever said they felt worse after a walk ... and maybe all that Zen stuff is true. If you quiet the mind, as you do in walking, it seems like you have more time."