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15,000 miles in 23 years, step by step

Dr. Sheldon Elfenbein strides out on the early

Dr. Sheldon Elfenbein strides out on the early morning walk that he does six days a week. (May 2010)e Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

The front door opens, and out bounds Dr. Sheldon Elfenbein. All 6 feet of him, clad in his walking clothes: green sweatshirt, black tights and a white cap.

"Good morning!" he booms to a visitor. "Ready? Let's go!"

It's a good thing that one is ready -- if not, one might easily have been trampled in the driveway of Elfenbein's Massapequa Park home. Even at 74, nothing stops the energetic man his friends call "Shelly"; least of all, we suspect, slow-moving visitors.

Up Harbor Lane we go; a few dog walkers and drivers gaze through early-morning eyes and wave. Elfenbein on the move is a conspicuous sight in the still morning; even the waters of the canals that bisect this area are barely stirring at this hour.

It was back in 1987 that Elfenbein -- a Bronx-born physician with a longtime private medical practice in Seaford - decided to start walking for health. Before that, he owned a 25-foot Sea Ray and was part of the local "boating crowd," a lifestyle, he says, that primarily involved "sitting around on the boat eating and drinking."

So on Oct. 18, 1987, Elfenbein laced up a pair of tennis shoes (he now wears New Balance), mapped out a 2.3-mile course in the Bar Harbor neighborhood where he and his wife, Myrna, have lived since the late 1960s, and started walking.

He dutifully noted date, route and the time it took him to complete the distance, in a spiral notebook. He got up the next day and did it again. And again. And again.

Nearly 23 years later, he's still at it. He walks six days a week before breakfast, in any weather except snow and ice, covering either the 2.3-mile course, or a 3.1-mile course, also in his neighborhood. (on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, he rests.)

Three children have grown, grandchildren arrived; Communism has fallen, the Internet emerged; the Yankees have won five World Series, and five different presidents have occupied the Oval Office. Elfenbein has walked through it all.

Walking separately
Occasionally Myrna joined him, but inevitably she'd fall behind the blistering pace set by her husband and they would end up a few yards apart.

"People would look out their windows and say, 'Oh, the Elfenbeins had another fight!' " the doctor says, laughing. "So we figured that we better walk separately."

Myrna isn't the only one who would have trouble keeping up with her husband. A Shelly Elfenbein walk is no tiptoe through the tulips. It's a heel-to-toe, arm-pumping, sweat-breaking workout. Although he's slowed a bit over the years, he still chugs along at a pace of about 13 to 14 minutes per mile. But as impressive as his pace is, what's truly astounding is his persistence; or what exercise scientists call "adherence."

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 50 percent of adults who start an exercise program, quit within six months.

Elfenbein has stuck with it for more than two decades. "I am not sure what motivates him," says Hank Williford, a senior fitness expert at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., who doesn't know Elfenbein personally. "But his adherence is tremendous. This also shows that walking, which is a great aerobic activity, can be maintained for years with little threat of injury."

As a medical man, Elfenbein knows well the benefits of exercise. But he does not oversell walking - particularly in its relation to weight loss. "A lot of people think if you just walk, you lose weight," he says. "You also have to diet."


He wants to be alone
Elfenbein also contradicts one of the oft-stated recommendations to those beginning an exercise program: do it with others. Studies have shown that people tend to stay with an exercise program longer if they do it with others. Not Elfenbein. A lone wolf, albeit a friendly one, he prefers to walk alone.

A friend, podiatrist Edward Fryman, thinks he understands why. "Shelly has a busy medical practice," says Fryman. "For most of his day, his time is not his own. One of the nice things about walking by yourself is you don't have to answer to anybody. Your head is clear of all distractions."

Still, there is that question Williford alludes to: What's keeping this man on such a structured exercise program for so long, by himself?

The secret might be in that little spiral notebook, in which he began logging his daily walks when he first started. That has multiplied into a drawer-full of similar notebooks, and as the years have gone by the good doctor has begun to keep track of the cumulative miles he walked.

In 1993, he realized that he had walked a distance equivalent to the length of the United States - 3,000 miles. To celebrate his milestone, Myrna threw a California-themed, "Welcome to Los Angeles" party, in which she festooned their home with photos and posters of the City of Angels.

After the party, Elfenbein kept on walking -- and keeping track of the distance. On March 5 this year, he hit another milestone: 15,000 miles. That's farther than the distance between the North and the South Poles; about the distance you'd travel going from New York to Tokyo and back.

Clearly, this calls for another party. He has one in mind: A "celebration of life." He got the idea, thinking back to his father's shiva. "When we mourned my father, we would say, 'Dad would have loved this, he would have loved that all his family and friends came to visit.' So I had the idea that before you drop dead, you should have a party."

If his levels of energy and vigor are any indication, one doubts that Elfenbein is going anywhere, except perhaps for another walk around the neighborhood tomorrow. His next goal: The circumference of the Earth, about 24,900 miles. "I figured out that depending on which way you walked, I'm either in Pakistan or north of Okinawa," he said. Assuming he continues to log the same number of miles, he estimates he'll arrive home, he says, "when I'm 92."

In the meantime, Elfenbein and the visitor have arrived back at the doctor's home after a brisk 2.3 miles. It's not yet 7:30 a.m. He looks at the time. "Thirty-four minutes," he says. "Usually it's about thirty-three." He casts a reproving eye at the visitor. "You slowed me down a little bit."

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