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Walk Like a Man

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Unless you've been in a coma for the last fifty years, you've been subjected to some discussion of the value of exercise in dieting. Almost all the experts agree that it's a good idea - unlike other issues surrounding weight loss which are disputed constantly, lengthily, and with the acrimony normally reserved for ethnic conflicts in the Balkans. Occasionally, entire forests are clear-cut in order to publish the papers of dueling nutritionists. In November of 2007, the media ballyhooed two seemingly contradictory studies claiming that being overweight was either a risk factor for, or protection against certain forms of cancer1. Consensus is rare and discord the norm.

But there are apparently no diets for layabouts and idlers, or more specifically, diets that suggest they remain layabouts and idlers. I've yet to find a program that didn't advise or even demand an exercise regimen as part of its system. And just as it is necessary to find the right motivation to diet, it is equally important to find the right impetus to exercise.

Dieting only requires that you don't do certain things - in theory, you can diet while sitting on your couch watching TV - but exercise requires you to get off your ass and actually do something. This seems an obvious point until you try it and realize just how unpleasant that can be. Having worked out once, it's hard to justify doing it again.

Many of the psychological hurdles surrounding fitness are exacerbated by having to expose your lack thereof in public. For those of us who drag around the baggage of unathletic youths like Jacob Marley's chains, it is doubly hard to dwell openly in the land of the buff. To do so in shorts and t-shirt borders on the masochistic.

There is a degree of paranoia here. I suspect that among the fit, we flawed mortals are more often ignored than derided. I know that as we get older, we become increasingly transparent to younger generations until in late middle age, we achieve total invisibility in a feat that would astound H. G. Wells. You might think there would be some solace in this phenomenon, yet paradoxically, it too is a problem. We may not want our failings on open display or to have others judge us by them, but we certainly don't want our efforts toward betterment to go unobserved. If we're going to risk humiliation in order to pant and wheeze our way to better health, then, damn it, the world better notice!

If dieting at its core is a system of abstinence, exercise, minus the trappings, is physical drudgery. I like the feeling after a work out, when all those endorphins and encephalins are swimming around my brain, but I struggle to make the process itself tolerable much less pleasurable. It's no coincidence that invention of the walkman occurred during the exercise boom of the seventies and eighties; people were desperate for distraction from their aching muscles and labored breathing. Ultimately, exercise is another burden in life whose benefits I appreciate after the fact, like getting a flu shot or reading Henry James.

Those benefits, however, are too well documented to be ignored, especially by the inertia-prone. It would be comforting to think that health concerns alone would be sufficient motivation, but sadly, this is rare. In all other aspects of human endeavor, one should prize thoughtfulness and reserve, but when it comes to exercise, it's permissible, even desirable to be as shallow as a stool pigeon's grave.

In other words, embrace the trappings and brag freely about your efforts. The clothing, the shoes, the books and magazines, the endless prattle about technique, the obsessive recording and trumpeting of minuscule improvements in time, distance or endurance - these are the rewards. If working out also prevents a massive coronary, well, that's nice too.

I walk for exercise. I also walk to buy lottery tickets at the local convenience store. Therein lies my dilemma.

The virtues of walking are extolled by most every health and fitness guru; it can provide a good aerobic workout with minimal stress to bones, joints, and muscles, it doesn't require expensive equipment, and it is safe for those even woefully out of condition. There are no complicated skills to be learned; you don't need pricey lessons from overbearing pros. Walking is "sensible" and that's the problem.

Using the superficial frame of reference, it's easy to see the limitations of walking. How much cachet can there be in a skill mastered by one's first birthday and practiced by many into their nineties and beyond? What arrogance can be derived from knowing that walking is not only exercise, but the planet's oldest and most widely utilized form of transportation. Who wants to think that their strenuous aerobic workout could be mistaken for an errand?

Walking is deficient in all matters valued by the fitness dilettante, but most notably in equipment and clothing. Bicyclists wear helmets and logo-covered jerseys. Rollerbladers need knee and elbow pads. Runners and joggers can choose from entire designer wardrobes made from the latest high-tech materials. Basketball players use footwear more complicated than the space shuttle, larger too. And walkers?

Sneakers, sweatpants, and optionally, radio headphones tuned to NPR. The major athletic suppliers do market walking shoes, but they mostly resemble the orthopedic oxfords your school nurse wore in the '50s. For a man with my frivolous criteria, could there be a bigger curse?

There are more vigorous modes of the "sport;" power walking, race walking, and the burgeoning fad of pole walking. While the gear for these mutations is significantly more stylish, the overall presentation leaves much to be desired. The power walker, with forceful stride, pumping arms, and determined glare, suggests nothing more than a demented drum major, while the race walker more closely resembles someone desperate to find a bathroom. As for pole walkers, they seem like delusional or perhaps just scatterbrained cross-country skiers who forget they needed skis and snow. These forms may be more strenuous, but they're infinitely dorkier.

There is also hiking, walking's backcountry cousin. You can pretty much get away with anything in hiking - Compass, maps, GPS, crampons, snowshoes, goose down, Gore-tex, just the coolest gear your can think of. Dress up like Edmund Hillary, and no one will even blink. Hiking also provides the distraction of mind-blowing scenery. This is a wonderful alternative assuming you live in Colorado or Switzerland. If you live in Boston or New York, it's not an option unless you're Bill Gates and can jet off to the Alps for thirty minutes a day.

The practical and low-key nature of walking doesn't seem to bother women as much as men whose vanity about things physical is staggering. If walking is ever to appeal to them in a major way, radical changes must be made in the marketing.

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Jeff Brawer is a writer and television editor in the Boston area who has worked in broadcast, medical, and industrial TV for over 25 years. He has been dealing with weight issues for over 50 years and ranting about them for an eternity.
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