Everyone in Los Angeles has a ridiculous story about driving somewhere when two feet would have worked just as well. Mine features a celebrity. I once interviewed John Travolta at Paramount Pictures for an entertainment magazine, and when it came time for us to move from his trailer to the shooting location, a limo was summoned. Estimated distance of our chauffeured, temperature-controlled, Evian-sipping road trip: less than 25 yards.
This impulse is not so uncommon in Los Angeles. Friends of mine joined me at CicLAvia in June. It’s a recurring feel-good event that encourages walking, skating, strolling, scooting and biking through closed-off city streets normally blazing with car traffic. If you are a hipster from the Highland Park neighborhood in possession of a penny-farthing, this is your happiest day of the year.
“We drove two cars,” one of my friends said, arriving late and looking slightly bewildered. “We left one near the starting line and another near the finish.” I felt like saying, “People, this is Los Angeles: you only need one car for a pedestrian-friendly outing.”
This always sounds absurd to New Yorkers, but many Angelenos would sooner have their mug shots appear on TMZ than go a few steps without a motor vehicle. Here, we drive ourselves to jog, to bike, to attend spin class and to hike, and it’s not unusual for a dinner gathering of three couples to involve five or six cars. All of which contributes to how much we sit. When we are not sitting on the freeways, we are sitting at our computers, in meetings, at restaurants or in front of the TV. And by we, in this case I mean me, at least until recently.
At this year’s TED conference, the author and the Silicon Valley corporate executive Nilofer Merchant delivered a three-minute talk that scared the life out of me about how sitting has become the smoking of our generation. It arrived on the heels of a Harvard Business Review article she wrote that said Americans average 9.3 hours of sitting a day, compared to 7.7 hours of sleeping. So elemental is sitting to our daily routine, we don’t even think about it, and yet it’s killing us.
Just one hour of sitting slows production of fat-burning enzymes by as much as 90 percent, she said, and a longer term habit (you might want to sit down for this) negatively affects good cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.
The detail that catapulted me out of my chair was the conclusion of an Australian study that found that for each additional hour of TV a person sits and watches each day, the chance of dying rises by 11 percent. Even the recommended 30 minutes of vigorous exercise cannot make up for the problems of hunching over your laptop the rest of the day.
Ms. Merchant’s prescription is to just keep moving. Walk with friends instead of stuffing your faces at meals. Walk to any destination within a mile radius of your home or business. Consider a standing desk (Ikea sells components to hack one for under $150) or even a treadmill desk, a kind of turbo work station that allows you to waste time on Facebook, but at an invigorating 2 m.p.h.
Naturally, Hollywood is all over it. “The actor Jerry O’Connell was in here the other day and said, ‘You’re the fittest screenwriter I’ve ever seen,’ “ said Janet Tamaro, who created “Rizzoli & Isles” and sometimes spends 10 straight hours walking through rewrites (many days her pedometer registers 50,000 steps). “I said, ‘Well, thanks, but that bar is pretty low.’ “
Ms. Merchant’s bolder solution is to “walk the talk” by scheduling walking meetings, a suggestion I took as a personal challenge. Every time a friend or colleague wanted to meet, I invited them to walk instead. The writing students I teach were more than happy to skip the gym and stroll out their editing and pitching woes with me. I walked my side of dozens of cellphone conversations, walked a friend around a state park on her birthday, walked on Ms. Tamaro’s treadmill as I interviewed her and even walked a fence contractor through his bid. (“A walk? Now?” he asked as we hit the sidewalk.)
These conversations were different somehow, with fewer awkward silences, more energy and a certain daydreamy quality (well, not with the fence guy). It helps explain, too, why “walk therapy” is an actual thing in Los Angeles.
I thought I was alone in using that term with freelancers looking to improve their careers, but Laurel Lippert Fox, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif., has been walking her private practice patients for years. “It’s so much more dynamic than sitting in your Eames chair,” she said. “Plus, moms can push a stroller if they can’t get a baby sitter.”
When I reached Ms. Merchant by phone at her office in Los Gatos, Calif., she had just returned from her fifth walk meeting of the week. (“I’m around 21 miles since Monday,” she said.) Both of us walked as we talked.
“What I love is that you’re literally facing your problem or situation together when you walk side by side with someone,” she said. “I love that people can’t be checking e-mail or Twitter during walking meetings. You’re awake to what’s happening around you, your senses are heightened and you walk away with something office meetings rarely give you — a sense of joy.”
Few in Los Angeles get more joy from walking than the walking activist Alissa Walker (I kid you not). A journalist by trade, she has lived car-free by choice since 2007 and is on the steering committee of Los Angeles Walks, a volunteer organization dedicated to repairing the city’s image as a walker’s wasteland. “The basic goal is to make people realize you can walk in L.A.,” she said. Better sidewalks, signage and city policies are all part of their mission.
I’ve known Ms. Walker for years through the writing community but the jubilant images she posts to Instagram (@awalkerinLA) and her blog (AWalkerinLA.com) — mostly of her glamorously adorned feet on some oddly alluring stairway or crosswalk — made me want to get out there with her.
I met her one warm, clear day in the Silver Lake neighborhood, and from her two-story royal blue house with white trim we walked along some of her favorite routes. She was wearing a billowy pink dress and neon coral sandals, and she had teal toenails that matched her sunglasses. At the bottom of her hill are the Music Box Steps, made famous in Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 Academy Award-winning short film, “The Music Box,” and now one of more than 100 vintage stairways hidden around the city.
Ms. Walker showed me the nearly completed bike lanes under construction as part of a “road diet” that’s turning four lanes of car traffic to one on Rowena Avenue. And we walked around the Silver Lake Reservoir and on up Swan’s Way, one of the city’s steepest staircases, with views to the lake, downtown and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. “If you squint you can imagine women in petticoats walking here a hundred years ago,” Ms. Walker said. “But you can also see the near future, when you’ll be able to walk Los Angeles without people asking ‘What are you walking for?’ “
I went home excited to keep walking as part of a conscious act of being a resident in Los Angeles, and to feel healthier and more connected to my friends, neighborhood and city. But first I sat down to get a better look at the blister bubbling up on my right toe.
Source: The New York Times
August 16, 2013
By David Hochman