THE MAJORITY OF aerobic activities--from running to dancing--bring out the competitor in everybody. And that, according to many exercise experts, has been the failure of the fitness movement.
"The emphasis was on athletic-type training, but the average person can't relate to that," says Dr. James Rippe, medical director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Center for Health, Fitness and Human Performance. "Exercise, which should be for everyone, became something beyond the grasp of those who needed it most."
For the last three years, experts have been espousing the least competitive exercise of all--walking. And this year, many others--including Jane Fonda and Dr. Kenneth Cooper--are spreading the word. Books, magazines, tapes, classes, specially designed shoes, even complete stores are giving walking the cachet that running developed more than a decade ago.
"This is a renaissance, not a revolution," says Brad Ketchum Jr., editor of the Walking Magazine. "The 1900s ushered in the automobile, and walking became an inconvenience. Now we are rediscovering it as a way to reduce fat, become cardiovascularly fit and alleviate stress."
Karen Voight, co-owner of Voight Fitness & Dance Center in Los Angeles, says that walking classes have been slowly building in popularity since 1986. "It's not as flashy or commercial as aerobics, but you burn as many calories walking briskly for a mile, swinging your arms, as you would running a mile--with virtually no risk of joint injuries," she says.
Carol Finkle, a San Fernando Valley-based fitness expert who leads a free walking program sponsored by Burbank's Parks and Recreation Department, believes that one reason women in particular are attracted to walking is that they have been hard hit by the exclusionary side of exercise. "I saw a lot of competitiveness on the aerobics floor. Women felt they had to keep up and look good."
This month a store called the Walking Center opened in Beverly Hills. To attract the customer with money and calories to burn, it offers upscale gear such as Nike's $225 Monitor, a computerized "talking" pedometer, and Uniq's $250 ProTrainer wristwatch /heart-rate meter. Of course, it also sells a variety of shoes, including Rockport's $70 ProWalkers.
The store also has a $395 four-week program offering participants an opportunity to work out on $6,000 treadmills equipped with sound and video systems. "We call it 'exertainment,' " says co-owner Andrew Schatz. His partner, Robert Jacobs, says the approach will attract kids as well as adults and eventually get them to appreciate "movement for movement's sake."
The point is to teach the non-competitive, enjoyable aspects of walking. As Rippe says, "How much you sweat or strain is meaningless. We want consistency rather than intensity."
Model: Lisa Croisette/Nina Blanchard