Motivated by the sudden death of his father, an aunt and two uncles to heart disease, Robert Sweetgall set out on a personal mission -- to warn Americans of the dangers of high blood pressure, smoking and overweight, typical risk factors for heart disease.
Five years later, in 1981, Sweetgall, 37, quit his job as a chemical engineer at DuPont and walked 3,500 miles across the country in 77 days, giving speeches and lectures about fitness and health to children and adults along the way. As incredible as that journey seemed, Sweetgall went one better -- an 11,600-mile trek around the country that ended in September of this year, making Sweetgall the only man who has traveled all 50 states on foot.
His account of this 365-day trip has a nice mix of recollections and advice for people interested in walking. But while some of Sweetgall's stories of the people he met and the lives he touched are heart-warming and fascinating, these stories drag on for a quarter of this 176-page book.
When he finally concentrates on the heart of the book, Sweetgall's pace moves right along, like his 4-mph gait. His explanation of "fitness walking" is right to the point. "Simply stated, fitness walking is a total approach to personal fitness that uses walking as a major exercise," Sweetgall writes. "But exercise is only part of the picture. Total health means improving your flexibility and strength, paying attention to what you eat and lowering your stress. The greatest benefits come when walking is placed in the context of a total fitness program."
Sweetgall's program starts with very basic concepts like taking your pulse and interpreting your fitness level. Then he talks about the mental aspects of walking, he presents a beautifully detailed analysis of walking shoes and foot care, but offers only one page on walking tips. The bottom line, Sweetgall writes, is to "walk naturally . . . do what's comfortable." Too basic for the more advanced walkers.
After some basic illustrations of stretching, Sweetgall briefly outlines five walking programs, from starter to expert, with assistance from the two men -- James Rippe and Frank Katch of the University of Massachusetts -- who monitered Sweetgall's physiological and psychological condition throughout his year-long journey. Sweetgall then details his nutritional needs during the walk and through life in general and concludes with a brief mention of walking for cardiac rehabilitation, a primary topic of research for Rippe and Katch.
The major drawbacks of this otherwise helpful introduction to walking for fitness is that Sweetgall is repetitive in places, like when defining fitness walking and the benefits of walking, and he wrote the book with half the 11,600-mile walk still ahead of him, so you never know whether or not he finished. For those still guessing, he made it right on schedule. -- Steve Nearman