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This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the September 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Walking

When I first heard that some guy had written a book

about running — then known as jogging — I figured that the

art of first person journalism had reached its ultimate limit. What

did this guy Jim Fixx have to say about this ever so simple subject,

and who would ever bother to buy the book, once the reviewers had

boiled down its contents into four or five easy pieces?

Well, live and learn. Jim Fixx’s book, "The Complete Book of Running,"

became a national best seller in 1977. People couldn’t hear enough

about the simple act of getting out in the neighborhood and running

around for a half an hour or so every morning. What I had taken for

granted, Fixx took as a richly-textured subject, with no detail too

small to ponder, and filled 314 pages with his ruminations.

Jim Fixx became the poster boy for personal physical fitness, and

millions of adults ran in his footsteps and hoped to emulate the physique

he sculpted while going from a weight of 220 pounds to 159. When he

died in 1984 — of a heart attack while jogging at the age of 52!

— he became a poster boy for what happens when you don’t have

a well-rounded health regimen. Fixx smoked until a few years before

his death, indulged in junk food, and ignored warning signs of heart

disease and genetic predisposition (heart disease ran in the family).

Still, he managed to live nine years longer than his father. Credit

the running.

I was never tempted to pick up Fixx’s book, not even after I took

up a little exercise program of my own earlier this year, after staring

down a 90 percent blocked artery leading out of my heart. Compared

to Jim Fixx’s running regimen, my walking routine seemed profoundly

simple: Wear good, comfortable shoes, put one leg in front of the

other, repeat pattern for 30 minutes, and try to cover 2.5 miles in

the process. Your heart rate will rise, and if you knock most of the

fat and booze from your diet you will lose weight as well (20 pounds

in 20 weeks in my case). What more can you say?

That’s what I thought until last week, when I stumbled across Maureen

Dowd’s column in the New York Times comparing George Bush’s foreign

policy to his exercise program. Referring to an exclusive interview

the president had granted to Runner’s World magazine, Dowd said she

didn’t know enough about Bush’s foreign policy, but knew too much

about his running habits. Up until this year, I probably would have

felt the same way. But now here I am comparing times with the president.

He brags about doing three miles in a little under 21 minutes; on

good days I do two and a half miles in 29 minutes. He’s doing 8.58

miles per hour; I’m doing 5.17. And I’m only walking.

Dowd quotes another article on Bush, which proclaims that the president

"does not like chitchat when he jogs." Hey, I don’t like to

say anything more than good morning to people I see on the street.

And I can’t imagine wearing those earphone radios that people have.

When I am walking, I want to walk — nothing more.

Walking, for me, has turned out to be a better form of mental relaxation

than Transcendental Meditation ever was — remember the TM craze

of the early 1970s and all the books and seminars it spawned? A good

walk not only clears the mind, but it also opens up the neurons of

the brain to all sorts of new connections.

A walk is a chance to discover hills and valleys in what you previously

had considered a totally flat world. In downtown Princeton you discover

that the stretch of Nassau Street from Vandeventer up to Witherspoon

has roughly double the foot traffic on a Sunday afternoon compared

to the block from Witherspoon over to Chambers Street.

And two and a half covers more ground than you would think. My stroll

takes me from the east side of town (a little shabby here and there)

to the elegant Western section and back through the John-Witherspoon

area, once considered the "affordable" (read black and Hispanic)

neighborhood but now showing much evidence of "gentrification"

(read yuppie).

Maybe there is a book in this. I root around and discover "Wanderlust:

A History of Walking," published in 2000 by Rebecca Solnit. Hers

is more a meditation than a prescription for a fitness program: "I

like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like

the feet, works at about three miles an hour." Three miles an

hour! Doesn’t she know George W. could run circles around her?

Solnit quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s essay on "Walking"

— good stuff. But elsewhere she labors hard to fill her pages:

"Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding

the body upright . . . The big toe pushes off, and the delicately

balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position.

It starts with a step and then another . . ."

Maybe there is no book on walking waiting for me to write. But maybe

I’ll be able to turn the subject into a column. I am going for a walk

and I’ll think about it.

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