Walking or biking to work can be a great way to get exercise

By Vicky Hallett
Thursday, October 7, 2010; GZ16

My first boss in Washington managed to make me feel lazy the second I showed up for work.

That's because Marc Silver, now 58, arrived every morning fresh off a seven-mile bike ride or run down the Capital Crescent Trail. (Luckily, there were showers at the office.)

Determined not to be a slacker anymore, I started biking to work. When I moved two miles from the office, I switched to walking. When I took a new job about three miles from home, I kept walking. A free hour of fresh air and the chance to burn off some of breakfast seemed like a much better deal than riding Metro.

And that's when I realized I'd become a firm believer in the exercise commute.

Anyone who has ever stewed in a stream of bumper-to-bumper cars or languished on a Metro platform after just missing a train has thought, "I could walk faster than this." That might not always be accurate, but it may be the better way to go, considering that Washington has some of the worst traffic in the country and some of the best trails. Commuters walk, run and ride a bike to work. Some even sneak in exercises while commuting by train or bus.

Photos: Riding into work on two wheels

Relying on two feet or two wheels to get all the way to the office might not sound possible to everyone, but that could be because you haven't tried. Silver started out as a cyclist whose first jog was an experiment, a not entirely successful one. "I couldn't walk that night," he says.

But he built up endurance, and now that he works downtown at National Geographic -- a change that has kicked up the mileage slightly -- he has developed a schedule of three bike days and two run days a week. "You gradually notice what seemed long now seems less so," he says. "And I get to work knowing I've already accomplished one thing today." He has also saved the hour he would have otherwise spent going to the gym, and in our time-crunched culture, that's maybe the biggest selling point of all.

On the run

For Gerald Epstein, 53, running 13 miles to work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science every Thursday for the past two months is the only way he has managed to fit in the long midweek run that's required for his marathon-training program. It takes two hours to get from Bethesda to Metro Center, but one hour of that is time that he'd be in transit anyway. And the view is hard to beat. "I get down to the Mall and the Washington Monument, and I see the sunrise hit the Lincoln Memorial," he says.

Epstein shares the Capital Crescent Trail with scores of commuters, including attorney Brad Wine. The 40-year-old runs seven to 10 miles three days a week for exercise, but only last year did he realize that if he got this exercise while headed to work, he'd knock out two birds with one stone. "It was a real sense of accomplishment. I've lived in D.C. since 1988, and I'd never run someplace," Wine says.

Plus, Epstein says, the money he saves by skipping the bus and train pays for breakfast.


Yes, you're bound to get hungrier when you're moving under your own steam. So you have to think about snacks, in addition to water.

And then there is clothing: Epstein brings an extra outfit to work the day before a run. Silver stuffs his in a backpack but appreciates his proximity to Filene's Basement on days he forgets socks or a belt.

NPR's Sarah Lumbard, 43, who's working to organize her office's sizable cycling contingent with regular gatherings, has my favorite approach: Before donning her riding gear, she gets dressed in what she plans to wear at work that day. "So I have everything: the right bra, the right shoes," she says. She stuffs the outfit into her saddlebag, changes into exercise gear, and she's ready to ride.

The best-case scenario is having a locker room in your office building, so you can store emergency clothes and have a place to wash up. A close second is joining a gym nearby, which also gives you the chance to pair your cardio with strength training. Otherwise, you have to limit your exertion level to what can be easily freshened with paper towels and water.

Switching gears

The logistics of an exercise commute can be difficult to manage, but at least they're not scary. That is how many folks view biking to work. Sherry Marts, 54, was terrified, too. The executive director of the Genetics Society of America hadn't really gotten on a bike since childhood, and she had never attempted to ride in traffic. But her husband, Larry Haller, also 54, was determined to teach her what he'd learned about bike commuting to the Department of Agriculture: It was time-efficient, improved his mood and kept him from feeling his age. "I just imagine what kind of shape I'd be in if I didn't do it. I know it would take a huge amount of discipline to go to the gym every day. This, I just do. It doesn't take any discipline," Haller says.

The couple started riding together to boost her confidence, and now she's a convert. Not only is she getting 45 minutes of cardio each way from the District's Shepherd Park neighborhood to Bethesda, she's also strengthening her muscles on those hills. "I feel it up to my butt," she says. Plus, she likes that it has improved her balance. "That's one of the things that starts to go when you get older," Marts says.

Spin doctor

It helps to have a mentor show you the ropes. But if you're not into hanging out by bike racks to make friends, as Marts suggests, you can call up the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (202-518-0524) and ask for "bike ambassador" Daniel Hoagland, who visits area offices to give talks on cycling commutes, covering everything from picking your wheels to D.C. biking laws.

Two weeks ago at the K Street law firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge, Hoagland gave his spiel to the staff, which already had several dedicated riders. One of them is Charmaine Ruppolt, a 52-year-old legal secretary who rides in daily from Arlington. She credits the regular exercise with keeping her healthy, which means instead of taking sick days, she gets more vacation time. To go biking, of course.

Part of the pitch is that you don't need to start out by copying Ruppolt. Hoagland encourages folks to try it once a month, if that's all they're comfortable with. His most popular prop at the seminars is a folding bike he can collapse in seconds, so it's easy to take home on the Metro if round-trip riding wears you out. (You can take regular bikes on Metro, too, but not during rush hour.)

When traffic seems daunting, change your route to a more peaceful ride that may also take longer. It isn't chickening out. The farther you bike, the better the workout, which matters to 48-year-old Yali Fu. She grew up in China, where her parents biked to work because they were too poor to afford an alternative. The National Cancer Institute employee does it instead to cross-train for marathons, prepare for longer rides and boost her mental health. "It really releases pressure, and I have time to get my mind organized," she says.

Bet you've never said that about being stuck in traffic.


Resources for exercising while commuting

Mass-transit maneuvers

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