Intense exercise may get results, but walking brings benefits all its own

Prep for the annual Moonlight Run & Walk with these tips, exercise insight

With the popularity these days of marathon running, those of us who walk as our main exercise might be tempted to feel bad about ourselves.

Don't, says Dr. Ronesh Sinha, a physician in internal medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and author of the book, "The South Asian Health Solution."

Walking, it turns out, carries health benefits that even hardcore bootcamps can't provide.

Sinha, who runs corporate wellness programs, calls walking an essential way to prevent disease, particularly given our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

People used to be more active -- walking, squatting and carrying things as a natural part of their day. Now workers sit hour after hour in front of computers, leading to musculoskeletal and metabolic health problems, according to Sinha.

Prolonged sitting results in greater storage of fat and inflammation at the cellular level, which "is at the root of all chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.) and premature aging," Sinha wrote in a blog post on the Palo Alto Medical Foundation website.

In fact, Sinha says, he's seeing heart attacks and disease appearing in employees at younger ages.

Even workers who are getting the commonly prescribed 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise five times a week still test at higher risk for certain diseases, he says.

What people need is not so much intensive exercise as the essential movement that people got a half-century ago, according to Sinha.

"My average engineer walks 2,000 to 3,000 steps a day," he told the Weekly. But to maintain good health, "you need 5,000 steps" -- or about 2.5 miles -- and ideally as many as 10,000 steps.

And those steps shouldn't happen all at once, either, or you're missing the point.

"You want to interrupt prolonged sitting," Sinha said.

Among the health benefits of walking:

• Lowers blood sugar and triglycerides (fats) after meals

• Lowers inflammation in cells

• Modestly lowers body fat

• Lowers stress and improves immunity

• Prevents falls in the elderly

• Increases longevity

Tech worker and Palo Alto resident Dipti Joshi adopted her walking habit around 2007. With two little kids at home and working full-time, she no longer had time to go to her gym, even though she enjoyed the pool and group-exercise classes, she says.

"My endurance was going down," Joshi recalls.

She wasn't able to get much exercise during the day at her company.

"It's pretty much eight hours of sitting and working. I take breaks, but it's intense."

So she started walking, figuring that something's better than nothing.

"Little by little I started walking in the neighborhood and around town," she says. "I can walk on my own time and manage my own schedule."

Then she joined San Jose Fit, a marathon-training program that included a walking component.

"I remember the first time. ... We did 4 or 5 miles. It seemed like a tremendous distance, like I was walking and walking," she recalls. "Now, 10 miles is a piece of cake."

She's even completed two half-marathons. And every year since 2008, she and her family have completed the Palo Alto Weekly's Moonlight Run & Walk.

"Walking has a lot of effects. It is easy. It improves health and endurance," said Joshi, who added that when she wants to exercise, she just puts on her shoes and off she goes -- no hassle.

Walking is also relatively inexpensive because it doesn't require purchasing exercise equipment.

"That's a big benefit," she said.

For those people just getting into an exercise routine, walking is a natural starting point with low risk of injury.

"There's no really wrong way to walk naturally, unless you have a unique disability," Sinha said.

"I tell people, it's an opportunity to open the body up a bit. Sitting hunched forward causes nerve problems in your upper neck and upper back."

He advises that people roll their shoulders back as they walk. To develop greater strength in their legs, people can walk up and down hills and slopes.

Just how briskly should one walk to gain the benefits?

Sinha recommends the "talk test" -- the person should be able to talk on a cell phone while walking and neither be out of breath nor completely relaxed.

In spite of the recent trend in wearable technology, such as pedometers, Sinha finds them helpful for initial measurements but not essential in the long run.

"They're useful, but most people can use common sense. You know where you're at" in terms of the distance you've walked, he says.

One thing people should not be is dependent on them.

"I had a patient who lost her Fitbit (pedometer), and she literally stopped walking," Sinha recalls.

Joshi, for her part, started walking with a pedometer but found herself constantly looking at it, she says, to the detriment of her enjoyment.

"I walk because I want to," she explains. "I don't want to get stressed with 'I didn't walk 10,000 steps' -- that's not my motivation. I'm doing it for myself."

Even children, with their video games and hand-held technology, are susceptible to the hazards of a sedentary lifestyle, with pediatricians seeing an uptick in pre-diabetes and obesity, according to Sinha.

"Kids are playing on iPads instead of in neighborhood parks," he says. They no longer have the baseline of physical activity that they used to. Parents, Sinha advises, have to be role models.

For people who do aspire to greater athletic exercise, which can burn fat and strengthen muscles, walking can provide the foundation.

"Walking is a beautiful bridge to activities that are intense," Sinha says.

Launching full-bore into intense exercise may not be the wisest move anyway for people who have been sedentary, he advises.

"I'm seeing people with leg atrophy, who don't have good balance or core strength. That's really bad," Sinha says. "We see more weekend warrior injuries" because of the loss of coordination due to too much sitting.

And walking, especially outdoors, in nature, also brings mental health pluses, easing the stress of working long hours in Silicon Valley.

"That's the beauty of it," Sinha says. When it comes to relaxation, walking delivers "the perfect therapeutic dose."

Where do you walk? Talk about your walking routine around Palo Alto.

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Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 29, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Wonderful article! Walking is great for both your mental and physical health. It can also be a great time to catch up with a friend - take a walk together!

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2014 at 1:49 pm

The Palo Alto Baylands are a great place to take a walk, especially during the summer when the Adobe Creek path is open from southern Palo Alto to the Baylands.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2014 at 11:42 am

Windy Hill, Wunderlich and Rancho San Antonio Parks are great places to walk. Try to hike to Skyline once per week.

Like this comment
Posted by Sue Lockford
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 30, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Dr. Sinha's point that a burst of walking followed by a prolonged session of sitting isn't going to do you good is very important to remember.

You must interrupt your sitting (or lying down or whatever sedentary posture you fall into) with very frequent breaks to stretch, move, and walk.

For workers who spend a full day at the office in front of their computer, or sit in endless meetings day after day, the best two things are these:

(a) a standing desk (or even better--a treadmill desk), and
(b) standing meetings

With a standing desk, be sure to get a rubber floor mats to provide a cushion for your feet, and get a tall chair or stool on which you can sit for a few minutes each hour should you need to.

Standing meetings are even better. They force people to concentrate more on the work at hand, rather than trying to fill all available time with pointless agenda items. And this leads to shorter meetings (which are a huge win all around.)

Sitting is death is what all the research is showing us.

Like this comment
Posted by Gertrude
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I live in Menlo Park but have a favorite walking loop that winds through Palo Alto.

I start at Burgess park, near the library, and then cross Alma Street to the long dirt trail that runs along the train tracks, completely shaded by a variety of trees which are particularly beautiful in the fall when the leaves are bright shades of yellow, red, and orange. It's like walking through a forest. The trail ends at the pedestrian/bike bridge next to El Palo Alto, and from there I turn left and follow Palo Alto Ave. to the Waverley pedestrian/bide bridge that leads to Willow Rd. where I turn left and then right on Laurel St., which leads me back to Burgess Park. It takes about 30 minutes at a fairly quick pace. This is an ideal walk for those who live in downtown Palo Alto or downtown Menlo Park. Just walk out your front door and go.

Like this comment
Posted by Questionable advice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2014 at 1:25 pm

My cardiologist informed me that the the 7+ miles per day I walked were useless unless I was walking so fast that I reached my VO-2 Max and held it there for at least twenty minutes--in short, running! Running is hard to do with both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, so instead I started using the elliptical trainers the gym.

Also, the latest research now shows that doing more than six hours of cardio work per week is bad for the heart (Sept 1 edition of Time Magazine).

My former employer at Novellus died of a heart attack in spite of walking six miles a day and being a vegetarian--ironically, the attack hit him on a walk.

Like this comment
Posted by Gertrude
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 31, 2014 at 6:40 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 31, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Walking to get somewhere on a regular basis is a good form of exercise. If you walk, you have no problem parking. I strongly suggest using a small backpack to carry what you may need for your destination, perhaps a dressier pair of shoes, rather than carrying a bag, so that you can swing your arms while walking and get a good rhythm.

Like this comment
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 2, 2014 at 11:39 am

Put everything you need in another room.
Use the bathroom farthest from your work station.
Park in the first space you see.
Buy comfortable shoes.
Put only some of your meal on the table at the beginning, then get up for the other parts.

Like this comment
Posted by Walker Mom
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Walking and bicycling with our kids to school is a great opportunity for exercise and quality time with them and their friends.

Live actively!

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2014 at 2:18 pm

There really are 2 types of exercise. If you're trying to improve your fitness and athletic performance, regular vigorous exercise (sweating, heavy breathing, etc) really does work best. Your entire workout does not have to be high intensity, but you should have some periods of high intensity every week.

On the other hand, even low intensity exercise, like walking to the train station, is still much better than nothing. It does burn some calories as well as keeps your muscles and bones and heart from prematurely decaying. I just read a study that regular moderate exercise also improves your brain function, including concentration and IQ.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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