Weekend Read: Take a Walk on the Mild Side with Marlin Heckman

April 23, 2010
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Marlin and Shirley prepare to stride out at Bonita High School.

Marlin and Shirley prepare to stride out at Bonita High School. When they began the sport, they would go out under the cover of night to escape embarrassment. That's not the case anymore.


In a little more than four years, 73-year-old Marlin Heckman estimates he’s walked about 7,000 miles. His isn’t some wild, age-addled claim. Heckman was a University of La Verne librarian for 30 years, so he sources this stuff.

More impressive, Heckman didn’t pile up all his miles trekking across the United States or Europe, although he’s certainly well traveled. No, most of his mileage has been racked up here in the tiny burg of La Verne, Calif.

You see, Heckman walks everywhere … to Vons, to Stater Brothers, to the post office, to the University from his residence at Hillcrest. While his car usually stays put, he does bring something with him beside his beautiful wife Shirley and his trusty pedometer, and that’s his pair of Nordic walking poles that have been pretty much by his side since 1998 when he and Shirley first discovered them during a trip to Switzerland.

Nordic Walking is fitness walking with specially designed Nordic Walking poles, which are essentially ski poles with rubber tips. Finnish skiers began the sport in their homeland in 1997 as a way to stay in shape and train in the snowless summer months, and the exercise quickly spread across Europe. Its popularity was fueled from well-documented studies showing that Nordic Walkers achieved far higher fitness levels and caloric expenditure despite exerting no more effort than regular walkers.

“In Switzerland, we saw people with poles out on the trails,” Heckman recalled, “and saw the poles for sale in sporting goods stores.”

Heckman and Shirley bought one pair. “We each took one of them,” Heckman said, adding they used them more like canes at first.

When they returned to the states, they bought a second pair, and after enrolling in a course offered by the American Nordic Walking Association (ANWA), based in Pacific Palisades, they’ve been on their Nordic walking way ever since, even becoming certified instructors to help spread the benefits of the sport.

Shirley does a post-Nordic walk stretch.

Shirley does a post-Nordic walk stretch.

And there are many well-documented advantages that the librarian and walking activist Heckman has fastidiously and painstakingly researched.

“When you walk, you use just 70% of your muscles,” Heckman said. “When you Nordic walk you use 90% of them.”

“Three times around the block with poles equals five times around the block without poles,” Shirley added.

It’s because you’re literally pushing down as you step,” Heckman said, “and that’s also taking pressure off your knees. An article I have says it takes six tons of pressure off of your knee over the course of a mile. Runners are bounding and hitting their knees. This exercise literally lifts the knees, propelling you forward.”

So, in addition to strengthening their legs, Nordic Walkers also are strengthening their upper body, including stomach, chest, back and arms, while releasing pain and muscle tension in the neck and shoulder regions.

With more body parts in motion, Nordic Walking burns up to 40% more calories during their walk, consuming about 400 calories per hour compared with 280 calories per hour for normal walking.

“You reach the same intensity of running without the high impact and without the perceived exertion,” Heckman said.

By all accounts, it seems that Heckman and his fellow Nordic Walkers have discovered the Fountain of Youth, or, at least, a small spring.

Heckman is going to walk the walk, regardless, but he would like to bring along as many people on his journey as he can to help them achieve better health and fitness, especially his senior peers facing mobility issues.

He shared this quote from orthopedic surgeon, J. Richard Steadman of Vail, Colo.

“Walking with poles is good exercise for everyone, but particularly those with early-to-advanced degenerative joint disease or those rehabilitating from surgery. Walking with poles also improves balance when walking over uneven terrain, helping prevent slips, ankle and knee injuries and abrasions from falling.”

Walking, in general, is a lifesaver. Studies cited by the Washington Post have shown Americans who engage in moderate to high levels of activity “live 1.3 to 3.7 years longer than those who got little exercise.”

Walking with poles just enhances the results.

Heckman and Shirley will offer a Nordic walking class through the City of La Verne in the fall. In the class, novices learn proper Nordic walking techniques, such as diagonal coordination, stride, arm movements, pole movement, hand movement and posture. Meanwhile, people, in search of more information or out to get a head start on summer health and well-being, should visit the ANWA website at http://www.anwa.us. There is also a Nordic Walking blog by David Downer of England at www.nordicwalking.blogspot.com. A pair of poles, which can weigh as little as 12 ounces, can run from $140 to $200 depending on the composite materials used. With poles and a good pair of walking shoes, you should be good to go!

On the day of LaVerneOnline’s inspiring visit with the Heckmans, Shirley was wearing a black tee shirt, with this message for couch potatoes:

“I’m stepping because life is not a race.

You don’t need lessons.

There’s nothing to assemble

No one keeps score.

It makes me feel 10 years younger.

The road not taken is mine.

There are no membership fees.

I plan to celebrate my 95th birthday.

It’s just one step at a time.

I can leave my footprints on the world.”

from www.walk4life.com

Some Marlin’s and Shirley’s  favorite walking quotes:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” — Lau Tsu

“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.” — Steven Wright

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

“All walking is discovery. On foot we take the time to see things whole.” — Hal Borland

“A man’s health can be judged by which he takes two at a time — pills or stairs.” — Joan Welsh

For more health and fitness ideas, talk to Lance at Fitness Results, a proud sponsor of LaVerneOnline.com, (909) 305-0188 in San Dimas and (909) 608-1780 in Upland

For the best in sports medicine, call Rick at the Sports Medicine Center of Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center (909) 865-9810


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