Margie Warden is walking.
It’s 4:45 a.m., and even some of the birds aren’t up yet, but she’s walking. She’s 70 years old and sweating through a gray shirt as she trudges up a long hill in the dark. She’ll walk 6 miles on the grounds of Kansas City Kansas Community College before the sun comes up. Ten years from now — God willing, she says — she’ll still be walking 6 miles every day. She’ll walk in the heat, in the cold, in the rain and the snow, because that’s what she has done every morning for 41 years.
When she and a group of friends started walking in 1971, Richard Nixon was president, and gas was 40 cents a gallon. Warden was 29 then, and in far worse shape. Tipping the scales at 230 pounds, she wore a size 20 and took pills for pain, cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Her mother died at 45 of cancer.
She began walking around a track. That’s when she met a man who changed her life. She knew him only as Mr. Winn.
“He was on insulin for diabetes,” she said. “But he was able to stop taking his medications after he started walking. That really inspired me to keep it up.”
She has kept it up, all right — 15,000 days, and counting.
• • •
Margie Warden is bucking the trend.
In April, Slate magazine documented the decline of walking, and the reasons why, in the five-part series “The Crisis in American Walking: How We Got Off the Pedestrian Path.”
Studies using pedometers show Americans take fewer steps per day than walkers in any other industrialized nation, wrote author Tom Vanderbilt. The average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day; the average American about half that — 5,117.
We used to walk more. In 1969, nearly half of all students in kindergarten through eighth grade walked or biked to school. Forty years later, that percentage dropped to 13 percent, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Now we rarely walkanywhere.
Overwhelmingly we drive — even if we’re going short distances.
Wrote Vanderbilt: “America is a country that has forgotten how to walk.”
• • •
Margie Warden hasn’t forgotten.
Walking is an integral part of her routine: bed at 9:30, up at 3, walk from 4:45 to 6:30, then swim for two hours. It has made her so healthy, she wouldn’t dream of stopping.
Now retired, the former recreational therapist lost 60 pounds, dropped to a size 12 and stopped all her medications. Her blood pressure fell from 190 over 100 to 113 over 70. Several years ago a test showed she had the bone density of a 16-year-old.
If she doesn’t feel like walking in the morning, she goes in the evening. Even when her feet began turning in and her ankles started to hurt, she just put her sneakers on the wrong feet to turn them back the other way — and kept on walking.
“Walking is good for both your physical and mental well-being,” she declared.
Studies show walking just 6 miles a week makes you smarter, reduces depression, lowers your risk for Alzheimer’s, drops blood pressure and raises your self-esteem. Walking briskly 1 mile a day can cut in half the risk factor of someone genetically prone to obesity.
• • •
Some U.S. cities don’t lend themselves to walking.
How does Kansas City rate?WalkScore.com
ranked the country’s 50 largest cities in terms of walkability. Kansas City ranked 43rd, well behind the top five of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. Wichita placed 38th; Omaha, 21st. Overall, Kansas City was called “Car-Dependent.” Its only two neighborhoods listed as a “walker’s paradise” were Westport and the Country Club Plaza.
The 2,500 largest U.S. cities had an average walk score of 43 out of 100. Kansas City scored 38.
But it’s hard to rate the metro as either good or bad, said Aaron Bartlett, a senior transportation planner who oversees bicycle and pedestrian programs for the Mid-America Regional Council.
“Various locations have different strengths,” he said. “Johnson County, for instance, has an impressive network of walking trails that citizens use for recreation, whereas the Crossroads District has a higher density of destination points, making it easier for people to reach them on foot.”
Certainly, he said, there’s room for improvement.
“Many cities have passed ‘complete streets’ resolutions that focus on making roadways that serve all types of users, including walkers,” he said. “The point is communities are paying attention to this issue and are doing things to try to make it better.”
MetroGreen, a plan for an interconnected system of trails and greenways stretching more than 1,100 miles, was proposed in 1991. More than 290 miles have since been completed, according to MARC. There is no timeline — or cost estimate — for completing the plan.
Still, Sarah Shipley, spokeswoman for the local advocacy groupBikeWalkKC
, sees progress.
“I think Kansas City is on target to make great strides in walking and bicycling and general connectivity,” she said.
• • •
After more than two times around the 2-mile trail — which winds around a lake, through groves of trees, past apartments and along busy streets between State Avenue and Parallel Parkway — it begins to lighten up. As birds chirp loudly, Warden strides beside her friend, Gladys Johnson, as she has since 1971, along with a few other friends ranging in age from 62 to 76.
“It seems like time passes faster when you’re walking with someone,” Johnson said.
Johnson, now in her 70s, also started walking for her health. Since 1971 the retired substitute teacher has dropped 25 pounds. But she walks for more than just weight loss.
“It releases stress and gives me more energy,” she said. “When I walk I just feel so much better.”
After walking in the morning she sometimes goes to the Y for water aerobics. She also takes Zumba exercise classes and does weight lifting and step aerobics.
“I have no pains, and I’m not on any kind of medication,” she said. “I don’t have arthritis or anything like that.”
Why so dedicated to the routine?
“What really encouraged me is my mother gained weight and was very sick before she passed,” Johnson said. “She went up to 300 pounds, had high blood pressure and was a diabetic. And I said ‘I’m not going to let (myself) get like that.’ ”
People call Warden and Johnson “crazy.”
“That’s because they’re not going to do it,” Warden said. “And if they’re not going to do it, they figure there must be something wrong with you.”
There isn’t. Her doctor will tell you that.
At the end of the walk, Warden let out a satisfied smile and took a deep breath.
“Get yourself some fresh air before it gets all polluted,” she said. “Yes indeedie!”
Then she got serious.
“I just hope this inspires others,” she said. “Here we are in our 70s, off all our medications and we’re doing it. Iknow they can do it. Sometimes people will say ‘But I can’t go 6 miles.’ Well, I say, ‘Then just go 1 mile.’ ”