Hollywood’s New Stars: Pedestrians

Hollywood’s New Stars: Pedestrians

Nishant Choksi


Published: August 16, 2013

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 vigorousexercise 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.”