If running’s not your speed, consider walking for fitness and fun

Walking programs accommodate exercisers of all pace levels

The skies threaten, but a hardy pack of fitness walkers heads out from a parking lot in Northwest Hills anyway.

Nearly 20 strong, many wearing gold and purple shirts emblazoned with the phrase “We Walk Austin,” the members of the Art of Fitness Walking group march up Far West Boulevard at a brisk clip, chatting as they go.

If you’ve ever cringed at the thought of running around the block, take note. Walking is terrific exercise. Almost anyone can do it, you don’t need any special equipment or training — and it’s social. And possibly the best news of all? Research shows that in many ways walking is just as beneficial as running.

A 2013 study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology showed that runners had a lower risk of high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease than sedentary people. No surprise there. But walkers had an even lower risk.

The caveat? You have to walk farther, which takes longer, to burn the same amount of energy you would if you were running.

Like running, walking provides psychological benefits, too, including relief from anxiety, stress and depression.

“It’s good for you in every which way you can think about it,” says Phil Stanforth, director of the Fitness Institute of Texas at the University of Texas. “The best form of exercise is whatever one you will do — and people can walk anyplace. It’s easy unless you have a physical limitation; there’s no skill required. You can do it with friends and you’re less likely to get injured.”

Running does burn more calories per hour, and it may suppress the appetite better than walking. A 2013 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise titled “Greater Weight Loss From Running than Walking” indicates that running is better than walking if your only goal is weight loss, but there’s no firm consensus even on that, Stanforth says.

Besides, many people just prefer walking over running.

Elayne Barber, who heads up the walking programs offered through Austin FIT, was never interested in running, but when she turned 40 she wanted to walk a marathon. There were no walking groups available at the time, so she joined a running group.

“We would meet, then everybody would stretch and take off. I was on my own,” Barber says.

Eventually, the director of Austin FIT suggested she start a walking program. In 1997, she did. For years, the group met at the same place as Austin FIT’s running programs. Today it meets in a separate location, which makes it less intimidating to those only interested in walking.

Members can choose between the eight-week, beginner-oriented Art of Fitness Walking group, which covers between 1 and 4 miles each session, or more rigorous groups that walk much longer distances on Saturday mornings.

“People cannot wrap their heads around why anyone would want to walk,” Barber says. “But I’m not compelled to run. The more I did it, the more I realized there were other people like me.”

Carole Radford, 67, is one of those people. “I don’t like going to the gym and I love being outside,” she says. “My body just doesn’t run. It’s hard on my knees and I’ve never liked it. I’ve always been a walker.”

At the Art of Fitness Walking sessions, coaches provide tips on proper form and offer encouragement. Leaders pass out route sheets so the walkers know where they’re headed. The group breaks into smaller pace groups and no one is left behind. Members are encouraged to cross train and do more walking on their own.

Along the way, the walkers talk about families, jobs, pets or changes in the neighborhood. “There’s never a shortage of subjects,” says Brenda Gustafson, 56. “We solve the world’s problems.”

“When you walk, you talk. It’s almost like you’re getting exercise and therapy,” says Kay Horn, 64, an assistant coach. “I love it because it makes me feel good about myself. I’m doing something beneficial for my body.”

Dianne Casey, 74, started walking after having surgery and, as she puts it, “turning into a veggie.” Now she recommends it to others, especially seniors. “It’s a great starter to get back in shape,” Casey says. “It’s very low-key and satisfying.”

Some, like Penny Thomas, are former runners who turned to walking after getting injured. It took a few weeks for Thomas to shift mindsets, but now she loves brisk walking and appreciates the health benefits. “I decided not to do the pounding anymore,” she says. “You still get the miles in, it just takes longer.”

One walk with this group and it’s clear that walking can be as leisurely or as challenging as you want to make it. The walkers at the front of the pack speed along, trying to improve their pace week to week. Those in the back are content just to get the exercise.

“It’s just a reminder that you don’t have to be an elite athlete to get out and be active,” says Sherry Oliver, 48.

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