Walk this way | August 29, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 29, 2014

Walk this way

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

by Jocelyn Dong

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."

TALK ABOUT IT

Where do you walk? Dipti Joshi, interviewed for this story, suggests more Palo Altans would walk if people shared their walking routes and schedules with one another. Talk about your route and routine on Town Square, the discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Editor Jocelyn Dong can be emailed at jdong@paweekly.com.

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