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Walking is easy

By From the Lowell Sun

Dr. David H. Wegman, dean of the School of Health and Environment, UMass Lowell, which recently launched a seven-week exercise program to promote walking among faculty, staff, students and citizens.

Ask the Expert

In partnership with the Greater Lowell Health Alliance, physical therapy professor and organizer Deirdre Murphy, Wegman and others recently hoofed it between the North and South campuses. The goal, says Wegman, is to walk 10,000 steps each day, or about five miles, or for at least 30 minutes a day. Participants will receive free pedometers to monitor their steps.

Everyone's talking about how Americans are fatter than ever. What's going on?

There's no question that the size of population is increasing, though lots of debate about why it is. As we struggle to understand the factors -- aside from the most obvious thing, which is that people eat too much -- we realize there are two key elements: physical inactivity and poor nutrition.

Is Lowell any different, in terms of its heft?

The city in general doesn't look unusual. Even in the immigrant populations, among Cambodians and Hispanics, I don't think we're any different.

What's your sense of the fitness levels among your

colleagues? Among UMass students?

Again, I would say nothing unusual. We have one particular subgroup -- the undergraduate students in exercise physiology -- that as a rule are in better shape than anybody else. But overall most of the students are in OK physical condition while (among faculty and staff) people are in reasonably normal shape -- and that is to say, in generally inadequate physical condition.

You guys decided to march, not jog, into May. Why walking?

If you're going to change people's attention to physical activity, you've got to find a way people can fit it into their lives. There's a parallel here to dieting; everybody's on diet, and 99 percent are failing, because they try to do it, get it done, and it doesn't work out. We're trying to do something that's much more normal in terms of behavior, that people can sense is beneficial. Even little things like walking up the steps between floors, or parking farther away -- we're really trying to make walking a part of the normal environment. These little things you can build into your life regularly seem to have a higher potential (to remain part of your routine).

What pace is a good one?

One hunded thirty-five to 150 steps a minute is a pretty fast pace -- you're definitely going to break a sweat, though it's hard to maintain. But even walking at a pace that doesn't break a sweat is better than no walking at all, because it's going to lead you to be more aware of your body. It may not necessarily improve your fitness, but it's going to improve you over baseline. My father, who lived to be 95, got out and walked every morning. I know from doing it with him that he went very slowly.

What do you say to the person who says walking's too easy to be part of a real fitness routine?

I forget who said it, but "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." This seven-week effort, no it's not going to make people cardiovascularly fit unless they decide they're going to develop a full exercise program.

Is Lowell a walkable city?

No, but that's the norm. Unfortunately, all of the urban development concern, there's been very little thought to keeping the city walkable. Just after the snow (two weeks ago), I wanted to get some exercise and I had a meeting ... and trying to find a clear sidewalk to walk on was really hard. The attention is focused on making sure people can drive. It's a seasonal problem, but it is an example of where (walking) is on the priority list.

What difference are you hoping this March into May makes?

I think the main goal is to raise an awareness of how physically inactive we are, and sort of try to remind people of the many opportunities to walk if you think about it, and how you might be able to fit it in, and possibly revise the way you go about your day to fit more walking into it.