by Robin Warshaw
When you walk the walk, by participating in a charity walkathon, you do good things for others while also doing something healthful for yourself.
Walkathons raise much-needed funds for all types of charitable and non-profit organizations. At the same time, walking builds your aerobic endurance,1 reduces cardiovascular risks,2 promotes weight loss,3 and prevents loss of mobility due to aging.4 It can even lower mortality among people with diabetes.5
In keeping with the health rewards of walking as exercise, walkathons often benefit medical research, treatment and education campaigns. The names tell the story: America’s Walk for Diabetes (American Diabetes Association), Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (American Cancer Society), The Memory Walk (National Alzheimer’s Association), and others.
Although walkathons are held year-round (mall-walking makes that possible in wintertime), their popularity is most visible from spring to fall. Sometimes, it’s hard to go for a weekend drive without encountering one. The American Heart Association’s Heart Walk attracts more than one million participants at more than 600 events each year. WalkAmerica, the biggest fund-raiser for the March of Dimes, is held in 1,100 communities annually.
Most events cover relatively short distances, from 2K (1.25 miles) to 5K (3.1 miles), although some are marathons (26.2 miles) and half-marathons (13.1 miles). By collecting pledges from sponsors, walkers raise millions of dollars every year.
Walkathons inspire many of us, at all ages and levels of fitness, to get involved. Helping a good cause encourages us to lace up those sneakers and step out when we might not otherwise make the effort.
“When you walk just for the sake of walking, few people are truly motivated and keep it up,” says Werner W.K. Hoeger, Ed.D., FACSM, professor of kinesiology and director of the Human Performance Laboratory, Boise State University. “If you have a goal in mind, then that motivates you and gets you going. This is beautiful.”
A weekend walk
Having a goal is helping Denise C. Fox, of Brielle, NJ, prepare for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, coming up October 1-2 in New York City. (A similar event will be held at the Los Angeles beaches on September 17-18.) The cause was important to Fox because two of her friends” mothers had battled breast cancer. “It made me realize that it could be any one of us,” she says.
A friend urged her to be part of a five-woman walkathon team. Fox agreed, although, she says, “I’ve never done anything like this.” That might not be a big deal for a 2K walkathon. But the Avon event, held in eight cities across the US, is a marathon walked over two days. Some participants walk even more-26 miles the first day and 13 miles on the second.
“I felt it was a challenge for me,” says Fox, who is 32. “It made me feel as if I was doing something, getting the awareness out there.” She is aiming to raise at least $1,800.
Before joining the walkathon, Fox had been exercising only once a week or so. Her job and toddler son needed much of her time. These days, she’s trying to train regularly, walking about four miles, three times a week, and biking on one other day.
She notes her distances on a calendar. “Having that in front of me makes me accountable,” she says. “But it’s also encouraging me. I think, “Look, you started out doing a quarter-mile back in January and it tired you. Now you did four miles the other night and you’re still walking!”
That approach is a good one. “Start walking slowly before walking quickly. Then build up miles,” advises Noreen Oswell, D.P.M., a board-certified podiatrist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, who has volunteered as a physician at walkathons and marathons.
She says inactive women, who may be overweight, are especially prone to foot-related injuries from walkathons and need to prepare and use caution. “The injuries aren’t like fall-and-break-your-foot,” Oswell says. “It’s more like overuse, heel pain, arch pain, and tendonitis. They’re so common.”
Whether you’re signing up for a short-distance walkathon, or thinking about tackling something longer, training is vital. You’ll want to check with your health care professional first, if you’re thinking of becoming more physically active than you are now.
“You need to teach your body to exercise for the length of time you anticipate it’s going to take you to do that event,” says Hoeger. If you’re sedentary, a 2K walkathon might take 30 minutes and a 5K might take 50 to 60 minutes. Your training routine should build to the amount of time you’ll need for completion.
“Never walk the full distance as fast as you anticipate doing it in the actual walkathon,” Hoeger adds. “When you do that, you’re telling the body it’s time to peak…it needs two to three weeks to recover from that. You want to save that for the day when you’re going to participate in the event.”