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Why You Should Walk (Hint: Not for the Exercise)

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A few years ago, I was having my annual physical when my physician made one of those squinched-up faces that sets off alarm bells. When you see a doctor with that expression, you know you have something big: cancer, a brain tumor, an erratic heart rate, whatever. (To be fair, my doctor looks like an elf anyway, so this is close to his natural expression. If he weren't hammering knees and producing reflexes, my doctor would be hammering together toys in a workshop.)

"Your blood pressure is way up," he pronounced solemnly. "What's going on?"

"You tell me," I said. "You're the doctor."

Okay, too flip an answer for a solemn moment. But I was embarrassed, the way you're always embarrassed when you're caught out during a checkup when you admit how many glasses of wine you drink (depends on the week) or whether you exercise regularly (ditto).

Amazingly, my elfin physician didn't blink. He just proceeded to really ask me about my life: Was I stressed at work? How were my kids? How was my sex life?

It's not easy to discuss your sex life with an elf, but I answered his questions dutifully, clutching my paper wrap to my body. My answers were the usual roundup for a woman in the middle of her life: yes, I'm stressed about work deadlines; sure, my marriage is okay; yes, I still have sex; the children come and go and I have a mother I look out for as well. It's a full and happy life, I assured him.

He nodded, scribbled out a prescription, folded it, and handed it to me. "I want you to try this and see me again in six months," he said.

When I opened the paper, I had trouble reading his writing. Not just because it was the usual physician's secret code, but because I couldn't believe what I was reading: "Walk 20 minutes two times a day."

"Walking won't help me lose weight," I protested. "Besides, I already go to the gym."

"That's not why you should walk," he said. "Just try it and see what happens."

What happened--no surprise here--was that I became addicted to walking. Over the next six months, I walked the dog, I walked alone, and I walked with friends. Especially with friends.

I hiked trails through the woods, walked a flat gravel road around the reservoir, took my time going around the block. I walked in rain, sleet, snow, ice, sun.

My next doctor's visit, my weight was the same, but my blood pressure was down. A lot. But I didn't need him to check my blood pressure to know that: I could feel it.

I have been walking for years now. On the days I walk, I can do anything. These days, I drop my youngest son off at the school bus and take a half-hour walk before coming home, which lets me sit at my desk for several hours. Then I get up and take another walk.

"There's something wrong with you," my mother said recently, when I got up to take a walk in sub-zero weather, as the snow was starting to fall. "You're always having to get up and go outside."

It's true. I do have to get up and go outside, now that I've realized how all of the problems I have--big, small, immediate, long-term--feel so much smaller when I'm outdoors. That thorny chapter in the new novel I'm writing? I walk it out, and without even consciously thinking about it, the dialogue or the setting or the plot points come to me. The argument with my husband? If I bring him outside to talk, our argument is gone in just two blocks--lifted off our shoulders into the ether.

Recently, a New York Times columnist wrote a great round-up of stories on exercise findings for the year 2013 called "For Fitness, Intensity Matters." Apparently intense exercise is the way to go if you want to improve your health and live longer.

But if you want to live better, take a walk.