Practically every morning at 7:45, Anna May Martin hits Marley Station Mall with a neighbor. Not to shop -- it's far too early for that. Instead, the 67-year-old Glen Burnie resident goes to walk.
Striding for 45 minutes or so around the shopping center energizes Ms. Martin, who began the regimen three years ago to control her high cholesterol. "If I were home, I'd just be doing housework or sleeping later," said the peppy homemaker. "This way, I feel really refreshed and alert when I get back."
Ms. Martin has plenty of company. Thanks to its reputation as a low-injury, low-cost activity which yields many health benefits, walking has surged ahead of swimming and bicycle riding to become the most popular exercise activity in the country, according to a survey published last July by the National Sporting Goods Association. About 71.5 million Americans, many them senior citizens, now walk regularly to improve their cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle tone, as well as to lose weight.
Now, the recent release of a study showing that you don't have to move quickly to gain significant health benefits from walking may prod even more people to head to their local malls and tracks.
The study, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that women who walked a mile in 12 minutes and those who completed the distance in 20 minutes had the same 6 percent increase in high-density lipoproteins (HDL) -- the "good" cholesterol.
Past research has shown that an increase in HDL cholesterol leads to a significant reduction in the risk of coronary disease, according to Dr. John Duncan, an author of the report.
"We concluded that intensity does not seem to be as important in increasing HDL cholesterol as walking regularly," said Dr. Duncan, associate director of the Department of Exercise Physiology at the Dallas-based Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research. The 24-week study, which evaluated 102 women, was conducted at the Cooper Institute.
On the other hand, those who stepped up their strides did gain extra benefits. Women who walked a 12-minute mile burned off about 53 percent more calories than 20-minute milers -- 535 to 960 calories per 3-mile walk, rather than 300 to 360. They also increased their cardiorespiratory fitness levels by about four times that of 20-minute milers.
Still, the study may have an impact on those who do no exercise, according to Dr. Kerry Stewart, head of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention Programs at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. "This may encourage people who otherwise wouldn't walk, because they can't walk briskly, to do it on a regular basis," said Dr. Stewart. However, he added that he'd like to see the study substantiated with more research.
The concept of low-level activity may appeal to a far larger population than the vigorous forms of exercise promoted in the 1970s and 1980s Dr. Duncan said.
Nonetheless, this study and others like it is changing the ways doctors and exercise physiologists treat their clients. Rather than direct someone to try to achieve a maximum heart rate while walking, David Petrie, an exercise physiologist who heads the Human Performance Lab at the Sports Medicine Center of Union Memorial Hospital, now eschews such instructions.
"I just tell people to get out there and walk, and not to worry about the other stuff," said Mr. Petrie, who designs exercise programs. "You can slouch along, and what you're doing is still more than someone who's sitting down."
In previous years, Mr. Petrie sang a different song. At speaking engagements he would "tell people that unfortunately, their little lunch-hour walk to the Rusty Scupper wasn't doing anything," he remembered. "That's always been my patented thing. But," he shrugs, "I was wrong."
Apart from encouraging the sedentary to take up walking, the study may also relieve some guilt among those who won't win any Olympic medals for quick walking.
"It definitely makes me feel better to know that just doing what I'm doing is as good as the people who are racing around and trying to go fast," said Margy Klein, a 33-year-old Columbia travel agent who walks every weekend at a steady but unspectacular pace. She usually finishes 6 miles in about two hours.
But not everyone subscribes to the concept of strolling. Ever since it was founded 81 years ago, the Walkers Club of America, a 25,000-member non-profit organization, has advocated brisk walking. The release of the Cooper Institute's study hasn't caused it to change its pace.
"We feel that fast walking helps fitness and endurance in ways that slow walking can't," said Howard "Jake" Jacobson, executive director of the Commack, New York-based organization, which works to promote walking. Mr. Jacobson pointed out that, as the Cooper Institute study showed, those who keep up a rapid pace burn off calories much more quickly than those who mosey along. They also improve their cardiorespiratory fitness at a quicker rate, and build up their muscles faster.
"I really feel that people should not just stroll," said Mr. Jacobson, who advocates that most people under 60 aim to walk 13-minute miles. "They'll feel so much better if they work at it, and go out there with a purpose."
According to Dr. Duncan, the pace at which you choose to walk should be determined by your goals for exercising. If you aim simply to improve your health -- that is, to ward off coronary
disease -- sauntering might suffice, he says.
But if you seek to be able to exercise without becoming breathless or fatigued, picking up your pace will help you accomplish that goal in a shorter period of time.
"If you want to achieve that feeling of vitality, vim and vigor,
that's something you'll get from walking faster," said Dr. Duncan, who, like others, recommended that all walkers exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes three or four times per week.
No matter how the exercise is practiced, it's clear that walking doesn't lack participants. Dozens of people stride through local malls between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. every morning, including Harundale Mall, Owings Mills Mall, and Marley Station mall.
At Owings Mills Mall, the number of daily walkers has jumped to nearly 200 from 12 within the past five years, according to Katy Johnson, the Baltimore County General Hospital nurse who coordin- ates the program. Many of these walkers turn the activity into a social event, said Ms. Johnson, meeting friends at the shopping center and eating breakfast with them afterward.
And the number of people who come into Annapolis Mall's Foot Locker in search of walking shoes has doubled or tripled in the past five years, according to Bob Falatach, manager of the athletic shoe store. "We still have quite a few runners, but people are starting to see that walking is a good conditioning exercise, too," said Mr. Falatach.
Moreover, more doctors and other health practitioners now recommend walking for fitness to their patients. The activity is now the "No. 1 prescription for exercise" at the Human Performance Lab at Union Memorial's Sports Medicine Center, according to David Petrie.
"When I'm writing up exercise programs for people, if I come across someone who's undecided, I prescribe walking," said Mr. Petrie.
"It's because biomechanically, running is detrimental to the body. To cycle, you have to buy a bike and other equipment. With walking, if you have a good pair of shoes, there's nothing else you need, you just go out there and do it. It's most natural to everyone because they've always done it."
For Anna May Martin, walking 2 1/2 miles every day just makes good sense.
"My husband and I are both retired, so nothing says we have to get up in the morning," said Ms. Martin, who thinks the exercise has helped to lower her high cholesterol. "But I feel really good when I do this. It makes me have a better outlook on life."
Tips on walking
* Check with your doctor before beginning this or any exercise routine.
* To avoid injury, don't do too much too soon. Start at a slow, comfortable pace, then speed up after a few weeks when your body has grown accustomed to the exercise.
* Wear well-cushioned, well-fitting athletic walking shoes, particularly if you're walking on cement or other hard surfaces.
* To further reduce the chances of injury, perform warm up and cool down stretches for five minutes before and after walking.
* Lean forward slightly when walking, planting your heel with a straight leg. By pumping your arms, you'll be able to move along faster.
* Walk three or four times per week for at least 20 to 30 minutes each time.