Walking with Arthur*

I took a walk a few days ago. It wasn’t a long one--I’m just starting to practice this gentle and enjoyable form of exercise again after a long hiatus, and I don’t want to overdo it and sideline myself. Habits are hard to make and easy to break. But even though I only walked for about 20 minutes, it reminded me of why I really like it.

The joints in my left foot have been giving me some guff lately. I didn’t walk fast--certainly not fast enough to become breathless or to glow (my personal fave word for sweating). I just walked at a reasonable pace, a little faster than a saunter. Call it a stroll. Whatever it was, it allowed me to take notice of the things around me.

I live in an apartment that’s part of a large complex on a very busy, fast-moving, heavily traveled main thoroughfare. The rumble of traffic, horns, and sirens at all times of the day and night are part of my outdoors world now, and if I’m still not quite used to them, I’ve at least come to a sort of peace with them. As I walked, that noisy world slowly receded into the background, replaced by the stillness and quiet of half-century old neighborhood streets lined with smallish suburban ranch-style houses and what are now mature trees of all shapes and sizes.

They reminded me of the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s not far from here--five or six miles, at most. As I ambled along I suddenly remembered how much fun I’d had roller skating--four little wheels at each corner of each foot, strapped onto my red Keds--on sidewalks just like these. In my old neighborhood the streets were hilly, so one of my biggest thrills was race down the longest slope, hoping I wouldn’t lose it and crash as my skates bumped over ruts and imperfections in the cement. I never did, but I’m sure that without today’s wrist-elbow-and-knee guards and padded helmets, I’d have done myself some real damage if I had. And, like most kids, I probably would have been right out there again, streaking down that hill like the wind as soon as I’d healed up.

I’ve become an amateur connoisseur of trees as an adult. My walk took me past an infinite variety of them. This part of California is temperate throughout the year, so there aren’t many types of tree that don’t thrive here. As I walked, I passed at least a half-dozen different types of maple tree, including many specimens of my all-time favorite, the Japanese maple. Some of these were younger trees, but several of them looked to be quite old. Although it seemed like it might never happen, autumn has finally arrived here, so each of these magnificent trees were in full color, their small, delicate leaves almost glowing scarlet, orange, and yellow in the thin afternoon sunlight. We had a day of cool, breezy rain last week, so some of them had lost about a quarter of their leaves. It won't be long before they're gone.

It felt good to walk. The air was crisp and cool--a delight after the seemingly endless summer with its oppressive heat. A light breeze ruffled my hair and chilled my cheeks, making me wish I’d worn a sweater. I figured long sleeves would be enough, but after another few minutes, it was time to turn back. I was actually getting cold. How totally wonderful, I thought. I'm cold!

Yes, I'm a nut.

I saw stunningly beautiful black-and-white western magpies in the tops of some of the oak trees, and a lot of house sparrows everywhere. Here and there were gray squirrels, running along branches and fence tops, scolding furiously at me. There were cats curled on porches and barking dogs in fenced front yards. What I didn’t see were any people--adults or children--but that was likely because school wasn’t out yet, and most of the adults were still at work.

Sadly, because of California’s four-year-long drought, many of the front lawns were either dry brown and dead or nearly so. A lot of the garden plantings along the houses had dried up, too--it almost hurt to see them. But some people had managed to keep at least some of them alive--I saw plenty of late roses, chrysanthemum bushes, and late season pansies and petunias, still lifting their pretty, colorful faces to the fading autumn sun. I hope the rainy season here--what the rest of the country calls “winter”--will actually be rainy this year!

As I walked home I reminded myself to breathe deeply and pay attention to how my body felt. My stride had lengthened as I moved, and my whole body had relaxed into the gentle rhythm of walking. My hips twinged a bit, but not badly, and after some initial soft, irritated barking, my left foot had gone quiet. My hands ached, but they always do. This walking, I thought, is going to be easier than I thought.

For now, I’m walking just three times a week for about 20 minutes each time. As my body gets more accustomed to it, I’ll add another day. My goal is five days a week, 30 minutes each day, by mid-January. Will I walk longer after that? Undoubtedly--when I did this a few years ago, over several months I worked up to walking about three miles in 40 minutes, three or four times a week. Sometimes I even jogged for short stretches. I’m sure I can do that again, even if I am older, slower, and (at the moment) heavier. That will change as long as I keep at it.

Walking is one of the best forms of exercise there is for rheumatoid disease. It strengthens the muscles that support the load-bearing joints--the hips, knees, ankles, and feet, which is nothing but good, no matter how you look at it. Walking also opens the chest to allow for nice, deep, oxygenating breaths and, as you establish a rhythm, gently works the muscles in your arms and shoulders, as well.

And do I really have to tell you what it can do for your brain? For your mood? For your self-esteem and self-confidence? It’s all good, every bit of it--especially the opportunity to really see and appreciate the world you live in, at eye-level and at a joyful walking pace.

Have I convinced you to try it? Come walk with me!

*Arthur is a well-known nickname for arthritis.

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