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Walking Papers

Health Wanted


Published June 23, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Christopher Wren shed 19 pounds while hoofing it from New York City to Fairlee, Vermont. Nearly two years after finishing the journey that inspired his book Walking to Vermont, he's still slimmed down. "I'm about up to 165," says the former New York Times foreign correspondent during a phone call from the Boston airport, where he's about to board a plane for Kazakhstan. "But I still haven't put it back on. Walking, I think, is one of the most underrated forms of exercise."

Among the things Wren has packed for his trip to Kazakhstan are a pile of letters from readers, who claim the book changed their lives, and a pair of hiking boots for walking the Central Eurasian hills.

Wren, who now trains Kazak journalists three times a year, wasn't looking to lose weight when he retired from reporting. He simply headed out of his Times Square office on his last day of work, stopped at his Manhattan apartment, and then made a beeline for his home in the Connecticut River Valley. But instead of hopping into a BMW 5-series or a VW Touareg like so many fellow New Yorkers bound for the Green Mountain State, Wren chose to walk.

"After 40 years as a working journalist, I had collided with the life change that is the stuff of which dreams and nightmares are fashioned," he writes. "Once the fizz is gone from the goodbye champagne, how do you enter this next stage of your life with any semblance of style or self-respect?"

Style and self-respect, Wren discovered, would arrive in steps -- about 800,000 of them, in fact, over the 400-mile trip. "I had always thumbed my nose at walking when I was a runner, and then I realized, actually, it's good exercise," he says. "You don't have the pounding on your knees."

He picked up a few blisters, but carrying a 50-pound pack and noshing on noodles, oatmeal, chocolate and rice -- all chock -ull of carbs -- Wren dropped weight. He ate when he felt like it, even feasted on cookies and buttery sauces when stopping in towns, but still he got skinny. "At the end of the day I was pretty hungry," says Wren. "But I think a lot of eating is a social thing."

Sharing meals, large and small, happens all around the world, but as news reports constantly nag us, Americans are eating more than their fair share and walking a heck of a lot less than the rest of the human race. Vermonters might be outdoorsy, but they can also be darned lazy at times: For some perfectly able-bodied folks, "camping" means driving to the side of a river, waddling off their RV, dragging out a grill, a feed bag of chips and a gallon of soda, then eating and drinking enough to end up comatose under the stars.

Health advocates explain that light exercise is just as effective as intense efforts for losing weight and reducing heart disease; they urge us to stop pigging out and start picking up our feet. And Wren isn't the only one listening: Pedometers have become a fitness craze, with conscientious citizens recording every step they take and aiming to reach 10,000 -- the magic number for improving health. Guidebooks like Fitness Walking for Dummies and Fitness Walking advise us how to walk (no elbow-whipping, please) and how to avoid the dreaded "turkey strut" and "bubble butt."

Even McDonald's has slipped "Step With It!" pedometers into its Go Active! meals and works with the American College of Sports Medicine to promote walking. (Number of steps required to work off the crispy chicken California Cobb salad with ranch dressing: about 12,000.)

If only the landscape around those McDonald's restaurants encouraged taking steps: During the past few decades, roads have been widened, malls built and housing developments constructed to fit our hulking trucks and cars, not to mention our bloated bodies. A recent story in Time magazine revealed that nearly half of Americans report they lack the sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly resources to walk to a destination from their homes.

"Burlington is a city you can walk in," Wren observes. But elsewhere in Vermont, where country roads and shady trails beckoned him from his city perch, being a pedestrian isn't always as easy as it looks.

"Land-use planning is critical, because if you put jobs in one place, and the shopping center somewhere else, and the housing somewhere else, you're almost forcing people to use their cars," says Beth Humstone, director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (VFOS). "I think we've had a long history of that kind of planning in Chittenden County and other parts of Vermont." Humstone also notes that as cars have gotten bigger, drivers have become increasingly removed from the world going on around them.

Wren felt the brunt of this phenomenon on his trek. "Few competitors for space evoke as much derision from American motorists as does the solitary walker," he writes. "This contempt is relatively recent, because walking doesn't sound so bizarre in the context of, well, the history of mankind. My ancestors walked. So did yours, for that matter... Not until well into the 20th century did Americans claim a patriotic right to drive gas-guzzlers to neighborhood block parties and the corner store. This preceded a recent finding by the Centers for Disease Control that three out of five adult Americans are seriously overweight."

Bucking the trend in Vermont, a group of students from Champlain Elementary School participated this year in a program called "Healthy Neighborhoods/Healthy Kids." They rated sidewalk conditions, crosswalks and other factors affecting the feasibility of walking to school, and followed up with improvement projects.

Now, says former VFOS associate director Sarah Judd, "The kids feel proud of their neighborhoods and are more apt to feel safe enough to walk." The program will expand to the Lawrence Barnes Elementary School for 2004-2005, and may one day spread beyond Chittenden County. "We'd really like to see the agency of transportation and the department of health get together and work on a statewide walk-to-school program," says Humstone.

Adults could take a few lessons from their kids. "About 50 percent of the people who live in Burlington work in Burlington, so many of those people could be walking or bicycling to work," says Becka Roolf, executive director of the Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, which advocates human-powered travel. One of its projects is a proposed 96-mile rail trail from St. Johnsbury to Swanton for recreational use. The group also urges Vermonters to consider alternate forms of commuting. "Sometimes in the ride-share listings I've seen people who are interested in getting a ride for a mile," notes Roolf. "It didn't used to be that a mile was too far to walk."

Those willing to go that extra

mile can take some advice from Christopher Wren: "You just get up and put one foot in front of the other."