If you’re an older adult looking to get in shape, stay in the shape you’re in, or stave off chronic health conditions, then walking is the exercise for you, according to Enumclaw’s Dr. Jim Merrill.
Merrill, who had a family medicine practice in the city for 35 years, spoke at a Green River College’s PRIME TIME program event on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
The PRIME TIME program aims to give adults 55-years-old or older the chance to “enjoy stimulating, intellectual learning through classes, discussion groups, educational tours and social activities.”
Standing in front of his audience, Merrill first showed off his favorite walking shirt.
“It says, ‘I’m into fitness,’” he said. “‘Fitness taco in my mouth,’” drawing a laugh from his listeners.
But then he quickly got down to business.
“We are a very unfit society,” Merrill continued. “People don’t understand the benefits of walking, just getting out of your home and on your feet.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, a 2015-2016 study found more than 70 percent of adults ages 20 and over were overweight or obese, and 20 percent of children ages 12 to 19 are obese.
Merrill also cited a recent University of Washington study that found fewer than one in five King County youths meets the CDC’s guidelines for physical activity — 60 minutes of moderate activity, seven days a week.
“We’ve gotten into this mode of living in front of the computer or in front of the TV or whatever takes us away from the outdoors,” he said, adding that last year, people sat an average of 6.5 hours a day, according to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey — an hour more than how much the average adult sat in 2007.
This obviously wasn’t always the case, but Merrill said many famous historical philosophers knew the benefits of getting up and walking about.
“Socrates was quoted as saying, ‘And is not bodily habit spoiled by rest and illness, but preserved for a long time by motion and exercise?’” he said, quoting from Plato’s “Theaetetus.” “Hippocrates, a little bit later… said, ‘Walking is man’s best medicine.’ There are all kinds of minds that were regular walkers.”
In fact, a 2014 Stanford study claimed that an “overwhelming majority” of participants who walked before taking a “divergent thinking” creativity test were, on average, more creative than their sitting counterparts.
Merrill even read from a book by a Dr. Chase, published in 1888, which stated, “Exercise and open air is first and foremost to the human frame… walk one or two miles a day, regardless of weather unless very bad.”
(Dr. Chase went on to say that if you find yourself walking in severe weather, remember to “keep your mouth closed and walk rapidly.”)
However, American society moved away from the idea of exercise around the 1950s, “a time when diet was thought to be more important than being active and exercising,” Merrill said, reading from a book titled, “You and Your Fears.”
“‘Exercise is unnecessary, and often harmful,’” he quoted. “‘All you need in the form of exercise is to turn your head once to the right, [and] once to the left, when the second portion comes around at the dinner table.’”
Then the pendulum swung back the other way, Merrill continued, and people started thinking rigorous exercising was the key to good health and longevity.
“I was always a guy that thought I had to run — running’s going to do it for me,” he said. “That’s what we pushed back in the old days, when I first started practicing in the late ‘70s.”
But it appears strenuous workouts have less benefits than light workouts, according to a 2001 Copenhagen City Heart Study.
The study wanted to figure out what the “ideal dose” of exercise was by surveying non-joggers, light joggers, moderate joggers, and heavy joggers, and then checking up on these participants in a later year to see which participants had died (of any sort of death) and which were still alive.
Of all those surveyed, the light joggers (who ran 1 to 2.5 hours a week at a slow to average pace) had the lowest mortality rate, followed by the moderate joggers. Additionally, “strenuous joggers [had] a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group,” an article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reads.
Light exercise can do more than just improve your general health, Merrill continued; the risks of cancer, heart-disease, and even Alzheimer’s can be reduced with a brisk walk or easy run.
The University of Leicester followed more than 420,000 people over six years to assess death rates, and slow walkers were, on average, two times more likely to die of a heart disease compared to faster walkers.
And another study published by the American Geriatrics Society in 2018 claimed those who walked slowly had a higher risk of developing dementia than faster walkers.
“Just try to brisk it up a little bit,” Merrill said.