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Walking and running: Great exercise at any age

When Georgina and I first visited Vero Beach, Fla., six years ago, one of the things I liked best was the one-mile exercise-jogging trail under the trees at the city’s Riverside Park.

This winding trail, its soft running surface shaded by majestic oaks, was the clincher in our decision to move to Vero Beach, Georgina says. Since then, I’ve jogged hundreds of miles there while listening to cardinals and blue jays and watching squirrels scamper up the trees.

But since late last year, I’ve been logging those miles as a walker, not jogger. I’ve switched to doing a fast walk - got my time down to 27 minutes for two miles - because my knees and back started to get achy from the jogs.

After 44 years of jogging - I took it up as a teen in 1962 to help me shed more than 40 unwanted pounds in six months - I first resisted the idea of giving it up to just walk. Isn’t walking for wimps?

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I now know that it isn’t, and that a brisk walk can be as stimulating and challenging an exercise as a jog. And for me at least (and I suspect for many other people 60 and older), walking is easier on the joints.

I am no medical or fitness expert, of course, and neither is Georgina, a lifelong walker. And before you start any exercise program, whether walking, jogging or doing anything else, always consult with your doctor about what he or she thinks is most appropriate.

But I do want to share my jogger-to-walker conversion and some of what I’ve learned about the value of exercise, both from personal experience and the extensive reading and research I did when I made the switch to walking.

The most important point: Both running and walking, if done properly and at your fitness level, can be great for your health, both physical and mental. Both can improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as increase cardiac endurance, bone strength and muscle mass. And with both, you can set goals and work toward getting a bit farther and/or faster each week.

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With running, you can work up a faster heartbeat and have a more intense workout. You can burn more calories, too, if that’s your goal (mine isn’t, because thankfully I’ve kept the excess weight off since my teen years). As a rule, the faster the speed, the more calories you burn.

But walking at fast speeds - try a mile in 12 minutes, which I’ve come close to but haven’t cracked - can be just as strenuous if not more so than running, and can sometimes burn more calories, based on studies I’ve seen.

And walking clearly wins out when it comes to avoiding injury. With running, as both feet leave the ground and you come down on one, the impact on your joints can be more than three times your body weight, or triple the impact of walking, based on medical studies. With walking, regardless of the speed, one foot always stays on the ground so there’s much less jarring of the bones.

In addition, it’s generally easier to find time for walking, and it does not usually require special clothing other than proper shoes. (Georgina, for instance, takes “walking breaks” from her writings many mornings and afternoons, right in our neighborhood.) With running - or fast walking as I do - you typically need gym-type clothes and a shower afterwards.

Both walking and running can clear the head, too, While I sometimes miss the “runner’s high” of a long jog, I can find a great sense of peace - and sometimes time to think - during my walks. And walking is something you can more easily do with a partner. For Georgina and me, even when not done for exercise, a leisurely stroll in the park is one of our favorite activities.

Humberto and Georgina Cruz are a husband-and-wife writing team who work together in this column. Send questions and comments to AskHumberto@aol.com or GVCruz@aol.com.