As I sat in gridlock on the George Washington Memorial Parkway during my 45-minute morning commute into Washington, I looked out the window. There was a woman my age running along the Mount Vernon Trail. I longed to be outdoors – and vertical.
That moment last fall, when I was 42, marked the beginning of a change in my life that would give me more energy and better fitness.
Like most Americans, my life is sedentary. I sit down to eat. I sit at my desk on days I freelance from home, and I sit at a different desk on days I work as a contractor in the city. I sit when I read at night. I sit at book club, in church on Sundays and when I get together with a friend at a coffeehouse.
Even exercising involves frequent sitting – for instance, on the drive to the tennis courts where, after a match, I climb right back into my car for the ride home. A run rarely takes more than an hour. Half of a yoga class involves seated poses.
“Let's meet for a walk instead of lunch,” a friend said one day. “I feel like we're getting sitting disease.”
Yes, sitting disease, a term describing the effects of a lifestyle that makes a person more susceptible to illness and early death. Research shows that regular exercise isn't enough to reduce these risks if you spend the rest of the day on your buttocks.
Trapped in my car that morning, I tried to breathe calmly, but even as I listened to a podcast on happiness, I was miserable. Washington has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, and there was no way I could feel anything but tense that day and many others as I watched people engage in the worst of human behaviour: cutting into lanes, yelling curses and making obscene gestures, as if we were all a bunch of toddlers throwing an R-rated temper tantrum.
It was clear: after years of city traffic, I had to escape the constant conga line of cars.
A bike seemed like a good idea. About 4 per cent of Washingtonians bike to work, one of the highest percentages for a major metropolitan city, a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report found. But it has a huge drawback: sitting. My body was begging to be upright and in motion. The ElliptiGO, a stand-up bike, seemed like the perfect solution until I saw the price: $1,200 for the least expensive model.
Paddleboarding across the Potomac River from Virginia into the city side sounded totally impractical, especially if I were in a mad rush. I also nixed the idea of running because I didn't want to run while lugging a backpack.
My mom lived in Nashville and had a horrible commute. When she and my dad downsized and moved even farther away from her job, I asked how she planned to handle the situation.
“Retire,” she said.
Getting desperate, I came up with a creative idea: rollerblading. It was great. I felt free and overcome with joy at so much fresh air. But all that ended one night last winter when I crash-landed at the bottom of the hill by the 14th Street Bridge. As I plucked dead leaves out of my hair, a woman ambled by, and that's when it hit me: I'd walk.
No special equipment necessary, just my two feet.
Because I'm not a morning person, I decided to Metro in to work (45 minutes door to door) and walk back. My home in Alexandria, Virginia, isn't exactly close to my work, but it's not insanely far, either: 7.2 miles on sidewalks or paths that take me past the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, the Washington Monument and the cherry trees near the Jefferson Memorial until I reach the walkway that leads to the Mount Vernon Trail. The route is well-lit in the city, and I wear a headlamp for the trail's dark sections.
How often I work in the city varies, but when I'm there, I pack yoga pants, layered tops, a sports bra and my Nike Air Zooms and change out of my business attire in the bathroom at the end of the day. (Walking with a backpack doesn't bother me the way running with one does.)
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/22 Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
Ketamine helps patients with severe depression ‘when nothing else works’ doctors say
2/22 Playing Tetris in hospital after a traumatic incident could prevent PTSD
Scientists conducted the research on 71 car crash victims as they were waiting for treatment at one hospital’s accident and emergency department. They asked half of the patients to briefly recall the incident and then play the classic computer game, the others were given a written activity to complete. The researchers, from Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the University of Oxford, found that the patients who had played Tetris reported fewer intrusive memories, commonly known as flashbacks, in the week that followed
3/22 Measles outbreak spreads across Europe as parents shun vaccinations, WHO warns
Major measles outbreaks are spreading across Europe despite the availability of a safe, effective vaccine, the World Health Organisation has warned. Anti-vaccine movements are believed to have contributed to low rates of immunisation against the highly contagious disease in countries such as Italy and Romania, which have both seen a recent spike in infections. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said it was “of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe” when they had been dropping for years
4/22 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
5/22 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
6/22 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
7/22 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
8/22 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
9/22 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
10/22 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
11/22 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
12/22 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
13/22 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
14/22 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
15/22 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
16/22 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
17/22 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
18/22 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
19/22 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
20/22 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
21/22 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
22/22 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
What a difference my new commute makes. After a little over two hours (arriving home after 7pm instead of around 6pm), I actually feel I have more time in the evenings, not less. I feel energized and happier.
On walking nights, I'm not as tempted to be a slug in front of the TV and to eat comfort food in place of a healthy dinner, as I'm often tempted to do when I commute by car. My calves are firmer; I'm sleeping better. Another bonus: not shelling out parking money.
While I'm glad for these perks, the greatest pleasure is the walk itself. I treasure the time to think and be outdoors. Walking has become so enjoyable, it's now a daily habit, even if only for a trip to the grocery store. I have spent Sunday afternoons logging 10, 15 or even 20 miles back and forth by the Potomac River, and I recently participated in my first endurance walk challenge: 133 miles along a stretch of the Pacific Coast.
The District Department of Transportation has a master plan for creating a city where “any trip can be taken on foot safely and comfortably”, but considering that Washington ranks seventh in pedestrian-friendly cities, behind such places as San Francisco, Miami and Chicago, there's work to be done. Speeding motorists, sidewalk repairs, insufficient street crossings and construction interference are some problems that need to be solved.
My pedestrian commute has even improved my marriage. I'd always wanted to be a couple who took an evening stroll after dinner, but my husband never seemed game. Reacting to my newfound enthusiasm, he recently said, “Let's walk the neighbourhood loop.”
Walking together is the perfect way to hash out problems. Talking through issues shoulder to shoulder instead of face to face provides a sense of unity.
On foot, I often see drivers looking at their phones instead of the road, tongues practically hanging out of their mouths as they stare at screens. Being hit by a distracted driver is my biggest fear of city walking. I can deal with the blisters and unexpected rain, but pedestrian deaths are on the rise in the Washington area, averaging more than one fatality a week, and I don't want to be one of the 154,000 pedestrians injured or killed each year in the United States by distracted drivers.
Sometimes I'm tempted to wait for a clearing in traffic and cross a street before I reach the corner – yes, that's considered jaywalking – convinced it's safer than observing all the rules. Too many drivers ignore walk signs – and even red lights. So I try my best to stay aware, a small price to pay for escaping the commute torture.
The other day, I used a standing desk at work for eight hours and then walked home. As my husband filled me in on his day, I settled into a chair. For the first time in quite a while, it felt good to sit.
© Washington PostReuse content