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Walk every day for better health

It's a new year. "Let's move it."

My seventh-grade physical education teacher used to say that to anyone who dawdled while putting on their snap-down-the-front, one-piece gym suits. I think of her sometimes when I'm taking my morning walk and the very thought prompts me to pick up my pace.

People influence us. We influence others. This is the first day of a new year and I'm trying to influence — talking to myself a lot, too. I've been really sedentary in recent weeks — oh, I dash around here and there, but there's not much focus to it, no discipline. And my frosted cookie intake went way up.

But today, (Happy New Year, by the way) I see others out walking in our snowy neighborhood and I feel the urge to do more of the same. It's such a simple thing, really. It's the single action we can easily take to improve our health as we age. It costs nothing — we just "move it." And I have a developing theory that when others see us being physically active, they're more inclined to do the same. Let's prove me right.

If your inclinations lean more toward slippers than shoes, here's something to ponder: this does not have to be a big decision, it can be a series of little decisions which make a large difference. Let me start with something I've said before: there's a difference between physical activity and exercise. Exercise is a sub-category of physical activity and refers to a more structured regimen. It's a continuum of sorts. On one end is an almost completely non-moving lifestyle where we spend a lot of time with bottoms planted firmly on an available chair. At the other end of the continuum is the Olympic-style athlete.

As we age, it's best to be snugly center stage, i.e. physically active on a regular basis in the fashion most personally appealing. I choose walking. Ten minutes here and 10 minutes there — that's really all it takes. Start by packaging those chunks of walking minutes into 30 minutes a day — aw heck. Just walk 10 minutes a day for a while, "move it" up later.

Even something as simple as walking across the room a couple of times jolts us out of our resting state and starts energy flowing. The benefits are enormous. (I'm getting energized just listening to myself). Being physically active on a regular basis significantly lowers the chance of developing diabetes (even when there's a family history) or heart disease (even if you're still indulging in more-than-the-recommended number of cookies.)

Walks are beneficial for bone strength and balance; they lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of colon cancer. And research suggests a regular jaunt increases your overall sense of well-being, helps address depressive tendencies. I could go on, but I think you've got it. In case you don't, one final point, when you're physically active, you tend to live longer. One study found that four hours of brisk walking each week prolonged life by four to five years.

Be healthy. Live long. Walk with me.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.