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Is Walking Enough?

Better Step Lively

WebMD Feature

Nov. 13, 2000 -- Legs striding, arms pumping, I'm hustling down a long corridor at the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research in Dallas, alongside exercise scientist Andrea Dunn, PhD. Her studies have helped make walking more than just a way to get from here to there; she and her colleagues have elevated it to a respectable form of exercise.


Today, Dunn has agreed to show me just how brisk a walk must be to count as a workout. I'm hoping that in the process she'll also help settle a growing debate in the field of exercise research: How hard and how long do you need to work out to stay healthy? The answer is still controversial. But new research is beginning to provide a clearer picture.


Brisk walking gained the status of exercise after a landmark 1989 Cooper Institute study came to a surprising finding: that people who were only moderately fit were significantly less likely to die of heart disease than those who never got off the couch. True, people who were super fit had the lowest death rates. But all their extra work gained them only a modest advantage -- 10% to 15% -- over the moderately fit group. The study, which followed some 13,000 men and women for more than eight years, was published in the Nov. 3, 1989, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Start of an era

The Cooper study, and others that followed, profoundly changed the thinking of many researchers. Many sports scientists came to believe that moderately intense physical activities such as walking, gardening, or cleaning house -- dubbed "exercise lite" -- could provide most of the health benefits of more conventional exercise. To lead author Steven Blair, PhD, and his colleagues, this meant that instead of exhorting people to strive for levels of exercise that most of them would never achieve, health professionals could urge their patients to engage in the kinds of exercise they might actually get out and do.


Even the U.S. surgeon general joined the ranks, issuing guidelines that encourage Americans to engage in "a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity (e.g., brisk walking) on most, if not all, days of the week." The era of "exercise lite" had begun.


Walking shoes became the rage. A magazine called Walking was born. And hoofing it through the neighborhood became the exercise of choice for many active Americans.

Not just a walk in the park

But a decade after the famous study's release, some researchers argue that we've been sold a bill of goods. "Exercise lite is to exercise what lite beer is to beer. It's pretty bland stuff," says Paul Williams, PhD, an exercise scientist at the Life Sciences Division of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California. "Exercise lite has given many Americans a false sense that a stroll through the neighborhood is all you need to stay healthy. Instead of pushing people to be more active, it's given them an excuse to do as little as possible."

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