Vicky Hallett
Vicky Hallett
MisFits Columnist

Walk the walk on exercise: WalkingTown DC tours and others make it fun

Every time Cultural Tourism DC presents its annual smorgasbord of free walking tours all over the city, I try to figure out how many I can manage to pack into just two days.

But this year I don’t have to do that — because the WalkingTown DC/BikingTown DC program expanded from a single weekend to nine days. It started this past weekend and continues through Sunday, presenting nearly 200 chances to take a scholarly stroll (or roll, in the case of the dozen bike tour options) through all eight of Washington’s wards. To keep numbers manageable, some popular walks require advance reservations, but most of them are open to anyone who shows up. For every tour, the schedule lists fitness level, which is calculated based on the distance and terrain. Options range from a few blocks to several miles.

Vicky Hallett

Writes for the MisFits column.

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With so many more days to take tours, my mileage, and hopefully yours, too, is sure to go up. But it won’t feel exhausting, says coordinator Helen Gineris, because tourgoers get distracted by stuff such as Federal Triangle’s sordid past as a red-light district and the stunning lily ponds of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. “If you’re at the treadmill watching TV or reading, you want to use your mind while you’re working out. Why not learn about the culture of the city around you?” she says. “D.C. becomes your gym for the duration of the tour.”

That’s especially true with a new tour this year, Fitness Walk of D.C.’s Circles and Squares (Friday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 8:30 a.m.). Led by personal trainer George Kassouf, it’s based on a route he developed for a client purely as a path to fitness. “But then I thought this would be more interesting if I knew what I was looking at,” says Kassouf, who hit the history books to find out.

In addition to explaining how Franklin Square once had a stream running through it and pointing out where Alexander Graham Bell lived, he’ll encourage participants to keep up the pace throughout the four-mile trek. And he’ll offer suggestions for drills to make it an even better workout. Speed demons are encouraged to go ahead of the group. “If we’re meeting at a statue, pretend you’re sharks and circle the statue until we arrive,” he says. Or, if there’s a step or bench, spend your waiting time doing step-ups.

On any tour, you can try this trick for a block: “Focus on pulling your navel in without sticking your rib cage or butt out.” It’s Kassouf’s way of giving clients a taste of Pilates.

But even if you’re just putting one foot in front of the other, a little tour can go a long way toward your health.

Make your move

The first steps we need to take to reverse the world’s ballooning rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity? They’re the ones right outside our door. That’s because if everyone walked just 30 minutes a day, we’d all have stronger hearts, bones and muscles, brighter moods and a much reduced risk for developing the health conditions that plague our society.

This became clear to George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, five years ago. “A heart attack tends to be focusing,” grimly jokes Halvorson, who saw firsthand what a lack of physical activity can do to the human body. “I knew if I wanted to avoid the next heart attack, I should be walking.”

And so should everybody else, which is why Kaiser has just launched Every Body Walk!, an educational campaign promoting the pluses of the easiest, most affordable, most accessible form of exercise around. On Sept. 20, as part of Every Body Walk! Week, he joined a host of experts for the Walking Summit at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health, which adjoins Washington’s Union Station. (The recently opened facility — free and open to the public — greets visitors with an 80-foot-long touch-screen wall featuring ideas for fitting walking into your day, inspiring stories of walkers and more.)

Before a day of panels noting that walking can improve quality of life almost instantly, get people off depression medication, strengthen social bonds and — by the way, Capitol Hill folks — shrink health-care costs, Halvorson announced, “We need to start a national agenda to take advantage of the health benefits of walking.” In other words, a movement for movement.

For now, that includes a soon-to-be-released free mobile app that’ll track walks and help link you up with walking groups. Kaiser’s also partnered with organizations advocating for the creation of more trails and pedestrian-friendly development. And through the leadership of Kaiser physician Bob Sallis, the health-care network is pioneering the idea of considering exercise a “vital sign.” Whenever patients see their doctors, how much activity they’re getting will be a standard question, and walking will be the first medication offered.

An amble a day keeps the doctor away.

Step it up

Maybe a walk supporting a worthy cause will motivate you to lace up those shoes.

Light the Night: Oct. 15; free, but only participants who’ve raised $100 or more receive an illuminated balloon and refreshments. This 2.5-mile loop on Pennsylvania Avenue benefiting the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society kicks off at 7 p.m. There are companion events in Reston on Saturday and in Rockville on Oct. 22. www.lightthenight.org/nca.

AIDS Walk: Oct. 29; $25. The 25th anniversary of this fundraiser for Whitman-Walker Health is a 3.1-mile march that begins and ends at Freedom Plaza in the District. Walkers start strutting at 9:15 a.m. There’s also a timed run that begins at 8:30 a.m. www.aidswalkwashington.org.

Greater Washington Heart Walk: Nov. 5; free, but only participants who’ve raised $100 or more receive a T-shirt. You’ll get a cardiovascular boost by taking part in this event at Nationals Park. The group gets moving at 10 a.m. with the choice of a one- or 3.1-mile course. www.startgreaterwashington.org.

Help the Homeless Walkathon: Nov. 19; $30. This 3.1-mile walk along the Mall supports organizations working to end homelessness in the area. If it’s still chilly at 9 a.m., that’s to remind participants what sort of temperatures homeless individuals regularly face. www.helpthehomelessdc.
org.

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