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Exercise intimidating? Just go for a walk

In Mexico, where April Reza goes to visit her relatives, “Everybody walks, she said. “The tortilla store is two blocks down, the market around the corner. Things are close and at hand; nothing is difficult to walk to.”

On evenings and weekends, people “just get out and stroll, be with the family and enjoy their community, even if it’s just people watching.”

Here, not so much. Americans are a sedentary, car-loving people who seem to need walking apps, charity walks and body pedometers to do what should come naturally.

“America has forgotten how to walk,” wrote Tom Vanderbilt in Slate magazine, citing studies which show the United States walks the least of any industrialized nation. He calls walking “a boutique pastime,” noting that when Americans travel abroad, they often start “on a panicked quest for ‘walking shoes,’ as if they were taking up some exotic new sport.”

Rebecca Solnit, in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” laments that “Walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading.”

Sonoma County tries.

Part of Reza’s job, as bilingual outreach coordinator for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, is to get people to spend more time outside, to “educate them on why it’s important to protect our parks.”

This summer, she successfully tempted 60 Spanish speakers to a family camp-out at the Pomo Canyon campground, and a 3.5-mile hike to Shell Beach.

Walking is indisputably a healthy activity, the well-known-benefits ranging from curbing obesity to fighting depression. It’s also cheap. You don’t need lessons and in Sonoma County’s climate, you can do it practically year-round.

But it still takes organizers to move people “to get out there, put one foot in front of the other and put some oomph behind it,” said Julia Pollock, who started walking as an overweight teenager in West Virginia. A nurse and walker for more than 50 years, Pollock leads groups for iWalk, Sonoma County’s Health Action program, assists rangers as a foot patrol for Sonoma County Regional Parks and takes school groups on hikes.

Still, she’d like to see more walkers out there.

“I do realize that for some people, it’s an effort, particularly if you’re overweight and haven’t walked for years, to get out of the chair and out the door,” she said.

She thinks the trick is, “Have people to do it with, someone who will say, ‘Where were you yesterday? I’m calling next time to make you show up.’?”

Reza said in spite of plentiful trails and parks, people may not be motivated if they lack access: “It depends on where you live and if you lack transportation.”

If you can get to them, there are many walks to choose from. The website iWalksonoma.org, has a list. So do various community centers. Most towns have walks like sebastopolwalks.org. Sonoma County regional parks has a trail challenge to introduce hikers to new sites. Landpaths has Vamos Afuera (Let’s Go Outside) bilingual outings.

More companies encourage walking as part of “worksite wellness,” said Paula Stacey, who runs the iWORKwell healthy-business program with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Companies offer group walks and other opportunities for employees to walk, recognizing that “sitting on the job is undermining their health. The notion that sitting is the new smoking is beginning to take hold,” Stacey said.

The Sonoma County Council on Aging offers an extra 15 minutes break time if employees use it to walk. Medtronic has “Race the Elevator” signs to encourage using the stairs and Agilent reserves its elevators mostly for freight.

More businesses, said Stacey, endorse walking meetings to get people to brainstorm on their feet. Some have gotten rid of individual printers “so that employees will have to get up and walk to the main printer.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right walking buddies. Jessica Scow of Santa Rosa organized a new mothers walking group out of the Forestville wellness center, where they met in a breast-feeding class.

Every Friday, the mothers meet for lactation advice and then take off with their babies.

“The baby gets some fresh air, we get exercise and a chance to connect with other mothers,” said Scow, a social worker.

Another walking challenge is for towns to provide more places in the neighborhood that people want to walk to.

A website called walkscore.com which ranks the “walkability” of cities, rates Healdsburg and Sebastopol “a walker’s paradise,” and Sonoma as “very walkable.”

Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Napa and Rohnert Park all came out as “car-dependent.”

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at sfswartz@gmail.com

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