Tag Archives: speed


January 15, 2014

It’s hard to believe it’s the ides of January already, well past the holiday season judging by the number of evergreens thrown to the curb.


Around the holidays, still in the thick of celebrations, the radio was already abuzz with ardent talk of resolutions for the new year. Shows about lush holiday entertaining were broadcast adjacent to those on which guests were interrogated about how they might resolve to become their better selves in a few days. As usual, a notable majority talked about being healthier. Women polled about their resolutions were more concerned with losing weight, while getting fit was how men envisioned their new year goal.

Since then, the media situation has not improved. Articles with instructions on sticking to these sometimes unrealistic expectations have proliferated, along with supporting materials. New York Times writer Jane Brody calls this the “Empty Diet Claim Season,” and reports being overwhelmed by 25 pounds of new cookbooks arriving at the office. Targeted to aid weight loss and wellbeing, titles such as Cavewomen Don’t Get Fat and Weight Loss for People Who Feel Too Much offer myriad ways to accomplish these aims.

Advice that can be easily assimilated from the comfort of a favorite couch or armchair means well, but the consensus is that neither diet nor exercise alone will cut it. Walking is an easy resolution target, too often seen as a compelling way to court fitness without breaking too great a sweat. While it might help maintain some level of fitness, walking isn’t going to get you in shape on its own, at least at the poky pace most of us move.

Some people vow to walk more; others to walk faster in response to recent research analyzing data from the National Walkers’ Health Study. Using data collected from almost 39,000 walkers, albeit a disproportionately female sample, researchers divided the walkers into four categories based on their typical speed as measured by a six-minute walk test. All four categories boasted suspiciously high speeds — the fastest group walking a mile in under 13.5 minutes and the slowest dawdling at almost 17 or more minutes per mile, which is still an above-average 3.57 mph.

In the slowest group, however, many walkers needed 20 minutes to finish their mile, the number of minutes by which Google times directions, and some took as many as 24 minutes. Comparing walking data with death records more than a decade after the study took place, the researchers discovered something not wholly surprising — the walkers in the fourth group were 18% more likely to have died, especially from heart disease or dementia.

The unexpected news from the study was that the death rate was still high for the slowest walkers even when adjusted for duration of their walk. Taking a longer walk, thereby expending as much total energy as a person walking “vigorously” for a half hour daily, did nothing to help the participants’ risk of dying. The very slowest walkers were actually 44 percent more likely to have died than others in the study, despite duration of walking or other exercise.

Who can tell, though, the researchers concluded, which problem came first — a lethargic walking speed or an underlying health condition, or whether the capacity for high intensity exercise is a characteristic independent of habitual physical activity. And although results were adjusted for other risk factors such as smoking, it’s worth noting that the fastest walkers also ate a lot more fruit, a lot less meat, and imbibed a shockingly higher quantity of alcohol than the slowest walkers.

All in all, whether such a study comes off as sound science or ableist propaganda, we’re still in favor of walks, long walks, and honoring the comfortable human pace at which we evolved to move. As avid New York walker Maggie Nesciur said, “I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed,” her steady voice revealing a deep sense of integrity. It would be ideal if this pace happened to be the ultra-healthy 4.45 mph of the fastest walkers in the study, but as long as you can finish crossing the street without getting hit by a surge of traffic, it’s probably fine.

If not, one of the best parts of resolutions is how easily they can be changed, unlike the habits they are often meant to modify. Since many resolution-makers are already entirely off track by now, just two weeks into the new year, it’s about time to make some new resolutions anyway.

Vehicular prosthetics and ghost limbs

November 27, 2013

Paul Salopek, previously mentioned in January at the beginning of his seven-year trek around the world, recently wrote an essay for the New York Times. He’s tracing humanity’s footsteps as they migrated ages ago from Africa to the southernmost tip of Chile. He’s currently crossing the Middle East, just 1,700 miles into the 21,000-mile trip, eleven months into the walk, and he’s getting a little lonely.

“Why did you leave the road?” one Saudi friend asked me, puzzled, when I improvised an obvious shortcut across a mountain range. “The highway is always straighter.”

To him, the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”

I just call it Car Brain.

What his term lacks in subtlety, it makes up in truth. Navigating through territories overrun with this mentality, Salopek is made to feel like an outsider, caught up in a strange fringe activity. In 700 miles, he says, only one person was curious enough to be inconvenienced by walking along for a few paces. Reassuring others (and perhaps himself) that what he is doing is not extreme, he notes, “Sitting down is what’s radical.” The people he meets ask if he is sick or crazy. He continues, with his little crew — at this point in the trek, he’s travelling with camel herders, a guide, and a translator.

Image by Paul Salopek from the Out of Eden Instagram.

Image by Paul Salopek

His invisibility to the Car Brain and the culture that promotes it is something very familiar to us, to pedestrians everywhere, as we take our chances on the streets. “Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost,” he writes. Perhaps ironically, this seems to be exactly on point with his original aims in the project — to recreate the pathways wandered by ancient humans in their dispersion across the globe. By walking their walk, he’s become one of them, has merged with another society at odds with his own. It’s challenging to be part of two worlds when the overlap is sloppy. Here, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announces cheerfully that at some point “everyone is a pedestrian,” but it’s a truth easily forgotten in the ruts of the Car Brain.

Image by Paul Salopek

Image by Paul Salopek: “First anthropocene border. Ethiopia-Djibouti”

Salopek will be featured in National Geographic magazine’s December issue, commemorating his first year on the road. He’s at about 8% of his goal, a humble portion of the total mileage, despite days clocking as many as twenty-five miles on poor rations. One wonders whether the trip will stretch longer than he expects, considering that no small number of those miles slipped past in a few days as he took a camel boat across the Red Sea before arriving in the Middle East. In a blog post for National Geographic, he writes,

Walking is like language. It is like most ideology, theology, and cosmology: a locally conceived idea. Countless inflections, dialects, and variations of walking will appear and disappear along my route. How many such taxonomies must I navigate across the world? And will my own walk survive?

His piece in the New York Times is brief but beautiful, as Salopek puts forth one word after another attempting to account for the wonders he sees. Referring to the three-mile-per-hour speed at which the human body evolved to travel, he says, “There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe.” Fortunately, he keeps at it. He has a book about the adventure due out in 2016, so despite never being far from civilization and its roads and airports, quitting is unlikely. And, as he writes, fatigued from another day’s sun, sand, and wind, he’s happy — the kind of happiness that rarely rides in the passenger seat.

Keep track of what Salopek is doing through the Out of Eden website, National Geographic’s page, updated weekly with fascinating cultural observations, and the walk’s Instagram, populated with photos depicting the “slow pleasures” the Car Brain misses.

Walking in a winter wonderland

December 28, 2012

The first snowfall of the year coincided unsurprisingly with an increased interest in ways to move around in the winter months without getting too cold. Treadmill desks have been rolling through the collective consciousness, perhaps outpacing the good old standing desk in news mentions. Remember the fuss last year about how, suddenly, sitting is lethal? The surest antidote for this was standing desks for office and home, in upstanding tradition just like Hemingway and so many others. Perhaps standing is the new sitting, and to further optimize our every moment, we must move more and faster than before, walking instead of merely loafing in place.

“Can you move it and work it on a treadmill desk?” asks Patti Neighmond as she puts one through its paces for the benefit of NPR listeners. She initially assumed that it would be an easy transition, but questions whether it is possible to accomplish thoughtful work on one of these machines.

“I thought I’d simply hop on the treadmill and be off walking all day while working. But it turns out it’s really hard to walk, talk, think and concentrate.

James Levine, an obesity expert at the Mayo Clinic who came up with the idea of the treadmill desk, told me that my experience was pretty typical. “There’s a tendency to want to jump on the treadmill and walk for hours and hours a day,” he says. “Don’t do that. Certainly, at the absolute maximum, do half-hour on, half an hour off, for two to three hours a day.””

That’s not a very long walk.

Walking is a wonderful pursuit in part because no special equipment is required — no rackets, swimsuits, golf clubs, rollerblades, patch kits for tire tubes, kneepads, goggles. Anyone can do it, lots of it, for free. Yes, shake your nordic walking pole as reproachfully as you like; it’s true. In the case of the treadmill desk, the entire premise is equipment.

So where, other than perceived necessity, did these contraptions come from? Treadmills have been around for centuries, about 4,000 of them, and have been used to pump water, grind grain, or operate machinery. They were an unfortunate feature of prisons through the late nineteenth century. Circumstances began to shift in the 1950s when treadmills were put to greater good as a diagnostic tool for heart and lung disease.

The big breakthrough came in the late 1960s when they were repurposed for home use. William Staub developed the curiously named PaceMaster 600 after reading Aerobics by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who was troubled by the dearth of affordable home treadmills to keep fit the weather-adverse.

How, then, did the treadmill morph from this glamourless beast hulking in the dark corners of basements and storage units, dreaming of a spandex and legwarmers 1980’s resurgence? The treadmill desk has actually been around longer than lore has it. While James Levine, an endocrinologist with the Mayo Clinic, is often cited as developing the first treadmill desk in 2005, the first to put the two together was actually Dr. Seth Roberts, a professor of psychology from University of California Berkeley, who began using one in 1996. Dr. Roberts freely admits that the popularization of treadmill desks is due to Levine’s efforts; he himself stopped walking while he worked after a few years. He wanted to move freely around the room, rather than trudging monotonously along the same path.

Dr. Levine was inspired by his research on non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, which he defines as “the energy expenditure associated with all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings.” In 2005 he published a study showing that people who are continually engaging their muscles in activities such as fidgeting, standing, or basically anything other than slumping in a chair all day, burn more calories. He now markets activity consulting services and a $4,000 treadmill desk called the Walkstation, and “works at 0.7 miles an hour.”

Walking on a treadmill differs in essence from walking through a place, either indoor or outdoor, and walking on a treadmill harnessed to a desk even more so. While walking outdoors is frequently cited as a way to induce creative thought, or to clear the mind, it is difficult to imagine the slow plod of feet on the treadmill’s belt as particularly inspiring. Fortunately, companies that have implemented walking desks have found increased productivity and revenues, and Levine credits the setup with greater concentration and reduced fatigue, in addition to numerous health benefits.

In 2008, Celeste Headlee visited a suburban Detroit Starbucks to ask how folks felt about a treadmill workstation in their office. In her article for NPR, she reports that the “general consensus was, are you kidding?” Undeniably, the perception of treadmill desks has not always been kind, from being too challenging and tiring to being too newfangled, espousing an indoor landscape too similar to that of the Jetsons’ living room. As Levine stated earlier this month, “But it’s totally mainstream now. There’s been an explosion of research in this area, because the health care cost implications are so enormous.”

Is the enormity of these implications sufficient to incite latte-laden workers to action? Detroit Area Rambling Network ambled over to the midtown Starbucks to try posing Headlee’s question again, almost five years later. How have fates changed for the treadmill desk?

Favorably, and very, it turns out. Patrons of all ages and pursuits were, if not enthusiastic about treadmill workstations, at least amenable to the concept. “Awesome,” responded the first person when asked how she felt about treadmill desk work. “My friend has a standing desk, and she has one of those kitchen mats under it, so she stands barefoot. I think I’d prefer that, but a treadmill desk would be even better. Standing is good, except for the standing. I think walking would be easier on my body.” She concluded thoughtfully, qualifying, “If I still have to use a desk.”

“Why not?” asked a young woman, poring over her notes for class. “I mean, I read when I’m at the gym. It’s basically the same thing.” It might be good, mused one man taking a break from work on his laptop, “especially for those days when you feel sleepy at work!” Only one person, citing unfamiliarity with the idea, frowned and hedged that he thought he would prefer the usual office setup.

The treadmill desk was perceived as a convenient way to pack some exercise into an otherwise stagnant day. “I guess it would kill two birds with one stone,” one woman reflected. “I would like it, unfortunately,” another said. “There’s not enough time in the day, you know, so if I could get my fat self on the treadmill, you know, while I work…” she said, smiling.

Several people expressed worry over whether they could multitask. “It would be an inconvenience — at first, having to do two things at once, when you are used to just using your brainpower.” She tapped her index finger majestically against her temple. “But after that, it would be a good thing.” Perceived increases in work errors deterred another: “I think I might mess something up so badly… But for other people I think it would be beneficial.”

All the focus these days on indoor walking begs the question, what does walking mean to us? While pacing around a room has long been a fine way to clear the head and stimulate creativity, for whom is marching in place preferable over a stroll in the park? Now there is no reason to even go out and walk the dog, as the dog will be perfectly happy trotting along on a doggie treadmill next to you as you type.

It’s a peculiarly first-world problem, where walking no longer means moving oneself from one place to another, but is merely a means to the end of maintaining the often overlooked physical self. It’s unlikely that treadmill desks will become an acceptable surrogate for the real thing – walking outside for transportation, exploration, fitness, or fun – but they seem well-poised to offer a sound alternative for the worker while at their desk.

With the recent emphasis on constant motion, it’s curiously paradoxical how sleeping eight hours a day is touted as healthy and utterly virtuous. To be lying down, motionless, in perfect repose! One wonders if standing beds will become a thing. Despite the continual praise for a good night’s rest, even the undisturbed sleep period is under siege. Our ancestors divided their sleep into two phases, taking a break in between to get up and stretch, to read, write, socialize, or have sex. Just as relying on a treadmill desk to correct a deficit in daily movement is a modern and likely first-world problem, so is the preoccupation with “sleep hygiene,” the melatonin pills and the compulsion to re-engineer an optimal sleep schedule. While the segmented night seems to have been the norm in the past and may be a welcome alternative for some, fretting about what’s best is likely to unravel some of the intended benefits. With treadmill desks, it’s evident that many benefits can be realized, but they may differ from the ones offered by a traditional walk, like stress relief from the sense of having a break from it all. While laudable for delivering movement to those who need it, they miss some of the fundamental elements that make walking walking.

For more on treadmill desks, check out Wired’s “MacGyvering Your Own Treadmill Desk”, or arguably the cheapest walking workstation out there at $22. For a zanier solution to fitness away from the gym, there is this comprehensive setup.

For a lovelier and less dire discussion of the malicious intents of chairs, read “Chairs, are they killing us?”

Studying walking yields pedestrian advice:

December 19, 2012

Don’t study while you walk. Or do much of anything else. Just walk.

Drivers have been encouraged to keep “thumbs on the wheel, not on the text” since Michigan enacted a ban on texting and emailing while driving. But what about cyclists and pedestrians?

In a study published last week, researchers from the University of Washington took to the streets to qualify distractions and quantify seconds it took to cross 20 risky Seattle intersections. Almost one-third of pedestrians were inattentive while maneuvering. Among the 1102 people studied, the most popular ambulatory activity was listening to music, which accounted for 11.2% of distracted pedestrians. The distracted pedestrians were also seen text messaging (7.3%) and making phone calls (6.2%).

Technological diversions correlated with speed and safety in clearing intersections unscathed. Worst off were the texters, who took an additional 1.87 seconds to navigate the intersection compared to attentive pedestrians — almost 20% longer. They were also nearly four times more likely to “display at least 1 unsafe crossing behaviour (disobeying the lights, crossing mid-intersection, or failing to look both ways)”. People listening to music walked faster through intersections compared to both phone users and undistracted pedestrians.

Smithsonian’s Smart News blog covers a few past studies on distracted pedestrians injuring themselves.

It’s not all grim tidings for walkers — on the other hand, researchers found that walking without the phone may counteract the frazzling of nerves that technological devices can promote. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, unplugging and taking a walk in nature increased performance on a creative problem-solving exercise by an incredible 50%.

Previous studies have established that demanding cognitive functions, including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are crucial to getting by in our media-saturated surroundings, and that the systems responsible for these functions can easily become overtaxed. Exposure to nature can restore functioning in these areas. Through this study, researchers have been able to add improved creative performance to the list of benefits realized by spending some time outside. Whether that is due to the walking, the nature, or to another variable is yet uncertain, but surely the message is clear enough.

“The walker”

November 19, 2012

A perennially adored narrative about walking accompanies this ethereal slideshow from the New York Times’ “One in 8 Million” series. Maggie Nesciur wanders the city, changing direction with the stoplights, drifting in and out of crowds. As incredible as her ninety-mile-a-week habit is the wonder in her voice as she shares her compelling musings on the difference between walking in the city and in the country, feeling like a tourist in her own city, and what constitutes appropriate footwear.

“I don’t walk fast; I don’t walk slow; I walk at my own speed. I have to keep moving. If I’m not moving, my mind isn’t moving much either. If I don’t walk, I can’t think.”

“I notice buildings, I notice people… And the quiet. The noise. It’s all here.”

Maggie Nesciur : The Walker