PUMPING IRONY: A Walk in the Park

I’ve been a pretty faithful bicycle commuter for the past 30-some years. But, when the first big snow falls here in the Twin Cities, I typically park my bicycle in the garage and rely on the automobile to get to work. I’ve taken enough spills on the ice over the years to convince me that it’s the most prudent approach. Usually, I’m back on the road by April.

This year, the first snow began piling up in late November, but owing to my new commitment to fitness — and the relative proximity of our new St. Paul offices to my South Minneapolis home — I’ve been walking to and from work on a semi-regular basis.

The two-and-a-half-mile jaunt takes me past Minneapolis’s only light rail line, through pastoral Minnehaha Park (above, during warmer times) and across the graceful Ford Bridge (which spans the Mississippi River, overlooking the Ford Dam, which powers — you guessed it — the Ford auto plant) in St. Paul.

The whole trip takes about 35 minutes from door to door and, while it can be pretty bracing when the mercury dips below zero (as it did yesterday morning), it’s about the most invigorating morning exercise I can imagine.

One thing I’ve learned about my aging carcass in the past year is how little my bicycle riding actually works my body. Yeah, my quads and hamstrings are OK (though not exactly supple), and I get the sense that some parts of my upper body benefit from my pedaling, but the first time I jumped on the treadmill at the club I could tell that nothing I had been doing on my bike had really prepared me for running — or even walking. My calves were seizing up, my knees were throbbing and my feet were barking.

Since I began walking regularly, though, I can feel those muscles rounding into shape a little bit.

Plus, when the temperature allows me to free my mittened hands from my pockets, my arms can get to swinging in a way that feels pretty productive. Cycling aficionados argue that their activity is a better cardio workout (especially if you’re going uphill), and they might be right. But at the speed I tend to ride during the non-ice seasons (less than 10 mph), I seldom find myself huffing and puffing (except on those damn hills or in the clutches of a 30 mph NW wind).

The folks at coolnurse.com calculate the calorie-burning potential of each mode of transport, and to my way of thinking it’s pretty much a wash (walking: 61 calores per 10 minutes for an average-sized guy; cycling: 74). But I’m not really counting calories (yet); the whole walking thing is maybe as much psychological as it is physical. After years of opening a garage door and either climbing onto my bike or into my car to get to work, there’s something really refreshing about simply slinging my bag over my shoulder, closing the front door behind me and just striding off to work pretty much unencumbered by the vagaries of a wheeled vehicle.

It helps, of course, that my route passes through a quiet residential neighborhood, a verdant park and over a majestic river. Research has indicated that simply being in nature can produce beneficial health outcomes. As Karen Olson points out in a June 2006 piece in EL, this walk in the woods can lower my blood pressure and bad cholesterol while boosting my immune system.

I’m a real sucker for a fitness program that’s also practical (exercising while commuting really fits that bill), so this walking to work idea is probably one that I’ll stick with for a while. It’s not going to replace sweating on the treadmill or the stationary bike, but I’m guessing it’ll keep me in the right frame of mind for those days when the gym is beckoning.

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