I’m poor and don’t own a car. I walk a lot but usually hate the experience. I chose an apartment complex with a really nice gym and I’ve worked out almost every day since moving, mostly by walking on a treadmill. I’ve been thinking about the constant middle class suggestion to people who can’t afford gym memberships: Just walk! It’s free!
Some neighborhoods are pleasant to walk in, with wide sidewalks flanking low traffic residential streets beneath mature trees. Others are less pleasant, with merciless exposure to wind and sun, interrupted or missing sidewalks, or loud traffic sounds. Many are downright dangerous, due to traffic or people.
I once lived in a neighborhood so unsafe, I dressed in my boyfriend’s clothes and adopted a masculine swagger to walk to work. Even then I got propositioned at least a dozen times a week, and sexually harassed more often still. Walking those streets for health or pleasure never crossed my mind, and I broke my lease to flee in the night after police found the body of a woman who looked like me in a dumpster across the street.
Of course, walking isn’t free. Most middle class people have a dedicated pair of athletic shoes. Most poor people have one or two pairs of shoes, that each must serve multiple purposes. The soles of my one pair of non snow boots are wearing thin and each time I work out, I know I am getting closer to having to buy new shoes. Walking on sidewalks or streets wears them down even faster.
Concrete and asphalt are unforgiving surfaces, harder on joints than a treadmill. Weather that might make walking outside impossible is no impediment to working out in a climate controlled gym, and I never get caught in the rain.
I have always struggled to work out. I have to keep my heart rates under 120 or I get dizzy and can’t breathe. Gym equipment tells me when I need to slow down, and if I need to take a break I can. Pausing on the side of a busy street feels far less acceptable. I also have IBS and exercise can inspire an urgency to use the bathroom. Having one close by makes working out easier to risk, because I probably won’t walk home in ruined leggings.
I can use a gym at night, or during the harsh glare of sunrise. I can use a stationary bicycle despite my abysmal sense of balance, and I rode four miles yesterday without adding to my collection of knee scars from riding traditional bikes. I can expect my drink to stay colder in an elliptical cup holder than in my hand. I can even plug in my headphones to watch TV on the monitors attached to each screen.
Only someone who had never walked in worn out shoes down a busy rode with no sidewalks and lots of men trolling for prostitutes could fail to see the world of difference. “Just walk” is useless and insulting advice; if you can afford a home safe enough to walk near, you can generally afford a gym membership too.
I think we have an obvious need for community gyms in underserved and unsafe neighborhoods. The health consequences of inactivity are real, and disproportionately impact people who can’t afford gym membership, or don’t have one nearby they can get to. Everyone should have safe, reliable access to opportunities for movement and exercise. Because it’s not just like walking. It’s a lot better.