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Derrick Z. Jackson

Get out for a walk

Fast walking, not trendy gadgets, is a key to long life

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / January 8, 2011

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IN HIS 1841 essay on self-reliance Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.’’ One hundred and seventy years later, with the exception of the treadmill, we remain suckers for fitness contraptions that promise maximum health with minimal use of the feet.

Emerson would have howled at the toning shoe. The billowy crescent soles turn people into human rocking chairs, a most curious imagery given the decrepit cultural status of rocking chairs. When the late oil well firefighter Red Adair was asked why he worked until nearly 80, he said, “I’ve got too many of my friends that retired and went home and got on a rocking chair and about a year and a half later I’m always going to the cemetery.’’

In this $1.5 billion niche of the shoe industry, toning shoe makers intimate that with little effort you can look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dara Torres. The unstable nature of the soles is supposed to simulate walking on sand to a degree that Skechers says they will “make your bottom half your better half,’’ without “setting foot in a gym.’’ Reebok says they will “tone and strengthen your butt, hamstrings and calves with every step.’’ New Balance says its toning shoe “encourages muscle activation in the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves, which in turn burns calories.’’

Most hot fitness fads are eventually doused with cold facts, and toning shoes are no exception. A study by the American Council on Exercise concluded that no toning shoe does what it claims. The claims are boomeranging into lawsuits from people who say they’re getting hurt in the shoes, including a $5 million class-action filing this week against Boston-based New Balance. I will leave that part alone, since it is hard to pick sides between a fraud and a fool.

But this fitness folly does show us just how important it is to use our feet. In a study this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, lead author Stephanie Studenski of the University of Pittsburgh found that the faster that older adults walk, the longer they live. The difference was so dramatic that the chance of living another 10 years for 75-year-old men, depending on their gait speed, ranged from a low 1-in-5 chance to a nearly-guaranteed 9-in-10. For 75-year-old women, chances ranged from 1-in-3 to 9-in-10.

This is common sense to the point of “duh.’’ Yet, we are so disengaged from our feet, from computers to cars, that we are overlooking a key marker for health. In a telephone interview, Studenski said gait speed may predict survival because faster walking requires energy, movement control and healthy organs. Slower walking may mean damaged systems that need attending. In the fattest developed nation on earth, slower walking may also be part of what Studenski calls “a vicious cycle of reduced physical activity and deconditioning that has a direct effect on health and survival.’’

She said more research needs to be done but that the association of gait speed and longevity seems so strong, it could eventually become a clinical indicator for health, similar to blood pressure, body weight and cholesterol. She said the findings offer another reason to take seriously the overall issue of remaking our so-called civilized environs, largely designed for automobiles, to encourage walking as a normal, desired way of life.

Studenski resisted making fun of the toning shoe, saying, “We should accept it as a good thing that people are looking for ways to be healthy. What we need are for people to find out ways to find things that work. We have to find ways to make physical activity more pleasurable. I fear that we’ve turned exercise into a duty and not a pleasure. We need to be living in environments where you don’t have to separate physical activities from whatever you already have to do.’’

Her findings speak for themselves. Fitness is not to be found in shoes that mock rocking chairs. Shoes are made for walking. To borrow from Nancy Sinatra, that is just what they should do.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.