Of course, it isn't mere walking, but a highly energetic, intensive form of exercise that many health experts recommend over jogging because of the lower chance of injury. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that exercise walking in all its forms, whether competitive or just for fitness, is now the second most popular outdoor activity in the U.S. (after swimming), up from fifth place in 1985. American Sports Data, a market-research firm in Hartsdale, N.Y., estimates that there are about 25 million serious walkers of all strides, compared with 13 million runners in 1983, the jogging peak. Actresses Cybill Shepherd and Shelley Hack walk. So do Bob Hope and Walter Matthau. To certify the trend, Jane Fonda will be out next month with two training cassettes -- for the Walkman, naturally.
"In exercise, consistency is more important than intensity, and that's the major health message of walking over running," says Cardiologist James Rippe, director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Aerobic walking ranges from striding along to race walking, but all forms share the same goal: to give the body maximum propulsion while firming up thighs, hips and bottoms. Coaches like Howard Jacobson, 56, who heads the Walkers Club of America, teach tyro trudgers the race-walking technique. The heel of the front foot must touch the ground before the toe of the back foot pushes off; the leading leg must be straight at the knee as the body passes over it. The arm movement is a sprinter's, pumping diagonally across to the body's center line.
These race-walking movements produce that curious rolling motion of the hips that many bystanders in their lethargy find amusing. "This is not a sport for insecure people," says Julie Morrison, editor of the Running Journal, based in Concord, N.C. "People often yell out and call me 'faggot' because I swing my hips," says Jacobson's son Alan, 32, a top competitive walker. Shrugging off the stereotypical jeers, Alan Jacobson churns along at 7 m.p.h., compared with the average aerobic walker's 4.5-m.p.h. pace.
Because an aerobic walker's stride is shorter than a runner's, requiring more steps over the same distance, more calories are consumed. At the rate of a mile every twelve minutes, the walker uses up 530 calories an hour to the jogger's 480. The walker also takes fewer risks, according to a number of reports. "We see a lot of runners sent to us with leg and back problems," says Bill Farrell, founder of the Metro Atlanta Walkers Club. "My shins would kill me after running," remembers Elly Christophersen, 30, now a devoted Manhattan walker. "From the standpoint of health and wear and tear on the body, race walking is much better."
The growing interest in aerobic walking has been reinforced by Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger's study of 17,000 Harvard alumni who are now 53 to 90. Paffenbarger, who is at Stanford University's medical school, found that men who walked briskly nine or more miles a week had a 21% lower risk of death from heart disease than those who walked less than three miles a week. Michael Pollock, director of the University of Florida's exercise-science center, recommends exercising at an intensity of 60% to 90% of maximum heart rate for up to an hour. However, notes the physiologist, who wrote the American College of Sports Medicine's Guidelines for Fitness in Healthy Adults, "if you choose more moderate training, you'll have to go longer and more frequently to get good results."
To keep themselves in peak condition, walkers are puffing through city parks and suburban streets. Brad Ketchum, editor of the Boston-based Walking Magazine, counts 10,000 walking events taking place this year. Among them: the Boston Stride, the San Francisco Stride (which drew 6,000 last fall) and the Casimiro Alongi International Memorial Racewalk in Dearborn, Mich. To supply this horde, Reebok, Avia and Rockport, even though they are commonly owned, & are separately producing a variety of models. Nike says that last year it sold more than half a million pairs of its specially fashioned flexible walking shoes.
Some athletes are alternating their running and walking shoes. Marathoner Clare Hurtel, 25, of San Francisco walks as part of her training regime. "At first I didn't take walking seriously, probably because it didn't hurt," she says. "Now I think it's definitely easier on your structure." So does Etta Hicks, 68, who works with mentally handicapped people in De Kalb County, Ga. She did not take to running, but walking, she says, "has become a way of life." Everyone finds the sport congenial, though not as much as Marilyn Nye, 43, and Paul Perry, 41, who met in a Dearborn race-walking group. In July they will walk, at a normal pace, down the aisle.