Diary of a Diabetic Chef: The journey to better health starts with a single step — out your door

How to walk your way to better health.

Ken.JPGView full sizeKen Gordon, owner of Kenny and Zuke’s Deli, was diagnosed with diabetes early this year. He will keep a diary of his efforts to help treat his condition with diet and exercise.

It used to be easier — a lot easier — to keep in shape. Everything seems a bit slower — my metabolism, my pace of life, my tendency to form an opinion.

And, I find that living in Portland, I walk less. I grew up in New York City. Think what you will of New York, it is a walker’s paradise. It’s pretty flat, and there’s always something to look at. Every block seems to offer sights heretofore unseen, points of view unconsidered. Neighborhoods seem to change about every three blocks. At times it seems as though you’ve left New York and somehow landed in another country, somewhere terribly exotic. Sometimes in another era in history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland. There’s a lightness to the place, a newness and novelty that is exciting and vital. Things start here. There’s a quirkiness that is almost charming in its self-awareness. A sense of community that is rare in cities its size. And a friendly competitiveness that screams, “come on in, the water’s fine!”

But a great walking city it is not. It’s a great biking city. A great hiking city. A great city for sitting in a coffee house, sipping an Americano, eavesdropping on a conversation, or chugging a brew and talking too loudly. A place to browse bookstores? Unequaled on this planet! And I dare you to name a city this size with a better food scene.

But for walking? Meh.

Portland is perhaps too spread out to be a great walking city. Sure, there are nice stretches where there are some cool shops and things to see. Where you might have to actually weave around a few other souls who’ve braved that day’s dampness. Then it’s over and there’s not much to look at for a while. Or you get to a bridge which — if a boat happens to be within a hundred miles or so — can put a serious crimp in that particular journey.

But I walk.

At the moment it is my preferred mode of burning calories, and maybe obligatory if one is to attempt a conversion to a healthier lifestyle. And since the thought of going to a health club or my basement and walking on a treadmill or pumping on an elliptical is to me akin to watching golf on television or watching grass grow, I take to the streets. Even if those streets are in Portland. And a little slick.

But here’s the beauty of walking: You can start doing it right now, a key feature when you’re hellbent — as I was — on turning your health around. And it’s cheap (free, actually). And no special equipment is necessary, except perhaps a pair of decent walking shoes. And those don’t even have to be new. Oh, and a good rain slicker, this being Portland.

And it’s easy (my wife, Leslee, says obligatory) to start slow and work up to longer mileage. And I don’t care how bad your conditioning is, almost anyone can walk. A little. Today.

I started out at about a mile. A gentle mile. Then I started walking a little bit farther, after a week. Got a pedometer and got a sense of how long it takes to walk a mile. After a while you get to know the distance by how many steps you’ve taken in how many minutes. A mile to me is about 2,100 steps, at a pretty good clip — about 15 minutes. Remember, this is your walk. You’re not reporting to anyone or keeping score. It’s all about burning some calories, speeding up your metabolism, strengthening your heart.

Start at your house and take a different route every day. And vary it slightly to keep it interesting. A lot of people wear iPods. I don’t. I do some of my best thinking when I walk and there’s quiet (or city noises) in my ears. I get ideas for columns, sometimes writing most of them in my head. Recipe ideas, imaginary retorts to those on my enemies list, things I’d say to the president if we met. I usually can’t wait to get home and write it all down.

Or you can drive, bike or MAX to a neighborhood you’ve never been to before, and just walk. Don’t stop to window shop or grab a smoothie. Save that for on the way back, if you can remember the route.

Walking is probably the least intimidating form of exercise there is. The Queen of England walks. Coal miners walk. Golfers walk … except if they’re actually playing golf.

And nobody really walks any better than anyone else. There isn’t a Michael Jordan of walking. There are people who walk who are in worse shape than you. There is no “par” in walking. No form to aspire to. There are ways you can optimize the benefits, but that can come later. Starting comes now.

A couple of days ago I was on a walk. I’m up to 3 miles now. Or 6,300 steps in about 45 minutes. And I felt the urge to run a bit. Just because. So I did. And it felt pretty good. A little less good the next day when the soreness hit, and Leslee conferred the silent “I told you so.” But the day of, it felt pretty good. I think I’ll try it again soon.

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— Any questions about Ken’s regimen or, well, anything? Email him at kgnyport@aol.com