As I sat in gridlock on the George Washington Memorial Parkway during my 45-minute morning commute into Washington, I looked out the window. There was a woman my age running along the Mount Vernon Trail. I longed to be outdoors — and vertical.
That moment last fall, when I was 42, marked the beginning of a change in my life that would give me more energy and better fitness.
Like most Americans, my life is sedentary. I sit down to eat. I sit at my desk on days I freelance from home, and I sit at a different desk on days I work as a contractor in the city. I sit when I read at night. I sit at book club, in church on Sundays and when I get together with a friend at a coffeehouse.
Even exercising involves frequent sitting — for instance, on the drive to the tennis courts where, after a match, I climb right back into my car for the ride home. A run rarely takes more than an hour. Half of a yoga class involves seated poses.
“Let’s meet for a walk instead of lunch,” a friend said one day. “I feel like we’re getting sitting disease.”
Yes, sitting disease, a term describing the effects of a lifestyle that makes a person more susceptible to illness and early death. Research shows that regular exercise isn’t enough to reduce these risks if you spend the rest of the day on your buttocks.
Trapped in my car that morning, I tried to breathe calmly, but even as I listened to a podcast on happiness, I was miserable. Washington has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, and there was no way I could feel anything but tense that day and many others as I watched people engage in the worst of human behavior: cutting into lanes, yelling curses and making obscene gestures, as if we were all a bunch of toddlers throwing an R-rated temper tantrum.
It was clear: After years of city traffic, I had to escape the constant conga line of cars.
A bike seemed like a good idea. About 4 percent of Washingtonians bike to work, one of the highest percentages for a major metropolitan city, a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report found. But it has a huge drawback: sitting. My body was begging to be upright and in motion. The ElliptiGO, a stand-up bike, seemed like the perfect solution until I saw the price: $1,200 for the least expensive model.
Paddleboarding across the Potomac River into the city side sounded totally impractical, especially if I were in a mad rush. I also nixed the idea of running because I didn’t want to run while lugging a backpack.
My mom lived in Nashville and had a horrible commute. When she and my dad downsized and moved even farther away from her job, I asked how she planned to handle the situation.
“Retire,” she said.
Getting desperate, I came up with a creative idea: rollerblading. It was great. I felt free and overcome with joy at so much fresh air. But all that ended one night last winter when I crash-landed at the bottom of the hill by the 14th Street Bridge. As I plucked dead leaves out of my hair, a woman ambled by, and that’s when it hit me: I’d walk.
No special equipment necessary, just my two feet.
Because I’m not a morning person, I decided to Metro in to work (45 minutes door to door) and walk back. My home in Alexandria isn’t exactly close to my work, but it’s not insanely far, either: 7.2 miles on sidewalks or paths that take me past the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery of Art, the Washington Monument and the cherry trees near the Jefferson Memorial until I reach the walkway that leads to the Mount Vernon Trail. The route is well-lit in the city, and I wear a headlamp for the trail’s dark sections.
How often I work in the city varies, but when I’m there, I pack yoga pants, layered tops, a sports bra and my Nike Air Zooms and change out of my business attire in the bathroom at the end of the day. (Walking with a backpack doesn’t bother me the way running with one does.)
What a difference my new commute makes. After a little over two hours (arriving home after 7 p.m. instead of around 6 p.m.), I actually feel I have more time in the evenings, not less. I feel energized and happier.
On walking nights, I’m not as tempted to be a slug in front of the TV and to eat comfort food in place of a healthy dinner, as I’m often tempted to do when I commute by car. My calves are firmer; I’m sleeping better. Another bonus: not shelling out parking money.
While I’m glad for these perks, the greatest pleasure is the walk itself. I treasure the time to think and be outdoors. Walking has become so enjoyable, it’s now a daily habit, even if only for a trip to the grocery store. I have spent Sunday afternoons logging 10, 15 or even 20 miles back and forth by the Potomac River, and I recently participated in my first endurance walk challenge: 133 miles along a stretch of the Pacific Coast.
The District Department of Transportation has a master plan for creating a city where “any trip can be taken on foot safely and comfortably,” but considering that Washington ranks seventh in pedestrian-friendly cities, behind such places as San Francisco, Miami and Chicago, there’s work to be done. Speeding motorists, sidewalk repairs, insufficient street crossings and construction interference are some problems that need to be solved.
My pedestrian commute has even improved my marriage. I’d always wanted to be a couple who took an evening stroll after dinner, but my husband never seemed game. Reacting to my newfound enthusiasm, he recently said, “Let’s walk the neighborhood loop.”
Walking together is the perfect way to hash out problems. Talking through issues shoulder to shoulder instead of face to face provides a sense of unity.
On foot, I often see drivers looking at their phones instead of the road, tongues practically hanging out of their mouths as they stare at screens. Being hit by a distracted driver is my biggest fear of city walking. I can deal with the blisters and unexpected rain, but pedestrian deaths are on the rise in the Washington area, averaging more than one fatality a week, and I don’t want to be one of the 154,000 pedestrians injured or killed each year in the United States by distracted drivers.
Sometimes I’m tempted to wait for a clearing in traffic and cross a street before I reach the corner — yes, that’s considered jaywalking — convinced it’s safer than observing all the rules. Too many drivers ignore walk signs — and even red lights. So I try my best to stay aware, a small price to pay for escaping the commute torture.
The other day, I used a standing desk at work for eight hours and then walked home. As my husband filled me in on his day, I settled into a chair. For the first time in quite a while, it felt good to sit.