MADISON, Wis. – With the thermometer hovering at 22, and the wind ripping off a frozen Lake Mendota, Rink DaVee and his brother Jim decided to take a stroll. And why not? After all, according to a recent top 10 list, there's no better place in the country for walking than the capital city of a state known more for cheese and beer than exercising.
"It makes you feel better," DaVee said during a break in his walk Wednesday, standing on the icy, snow-covered trail that extends out over the lake. "It gets you through a cold month of March."
Prevention magazine named Madison — 1,300 miles north of sunny Miami — as the most walkable of the country's 100 most populated cities. The list was commissioned by the American Podiatric Medical Association based on certain criteria. It ran in editions of the magazine released this week.
Madison beat out the likes of Austin, Texas (No. 2), San Francisco (No. 3) and Miami, which barely cracked the list at No. 98.
Factors contributing to the ranking were air quality, the percentage of people who walk to work, access to parks, number of athletic shoes sold, and (believe it or not) weather.
Number of beaches versus frozen lakes apparently was not a factor. Crime rate, unfortunately for Miami, was.
Adopting a walker-friendly plan 10 years ago was a major plus for Madison, said Prevention magazine's deputy editor Karyn Repinski. That plan focused on maintaining and improving the city's walkability and requires that when roads are redeveloped, they should accommodate not just cars, but bikes and pedestrians, too.
But don't be fooled by all the signs of fitness around town. Madisonians also love their beer, bratwurst and Wisconsin cheese. The city of 250,000 plays host to a four-day extravaganza dubbed "The World's Largest Brat Fest," where nearly 200,000 brats are consumed over four days.
Madison was the only city in the walking top 10 in a state that's not in the South or the West, a point of pride for people like Kathy Andrusz, coordinator of the Fit City initiative. Started in 2003 by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the program is a collaboration between Madison city officials and more than 30 other groups to combat obesity and get people moving.
"We're definitely touting it," Andrusz said of the walking rating. "We're definitely proud of it and will be able to use it as a sense of pride, if nothing else."
Madison is no stranger to No. 1 rankings. People still talk about Money Magazine naming it the best place to live in 1998, although that ranking dropped to 53rd last year. Outside Magazine named it the best road biking city in August, and other high rankings have come for its being vegetarian-friendly, gay-friendly, environmentally friendly, and, well, according to Midwest Living in 2003, the overall friendliest city in the Midwest.
Even with all that love going around, who wants to break out the walking shoes in the middle of winter? Especially this winter, with snow on the ground every day since Jan. 14 and an average high temperature in February of just 21.7 degrees and an average low of 7.2 degrees. It also snowed 22 inches last month.
"Winter weather is only a barrier if you let it be," Andrusz said. "It's a matter of attitude."
Repinski, the magazine editor who spoke from New York City, which ranked 39th, said only a cynic would let a little winter weather get in the way of walking.
"I walked a mile this morning and I was walking in an inch of snow," she said. "The conditions don't have to be perfect for walking, that's what's nice about it."
Downtown Madison lies on an isthmus with Lake Mendota to the north and Lake Monona to the south. Stretching to the west from the state Capitol is State Street, which is crammed full of bars, restaurants and boutiques, but no cars. It's perfect for, you guessed it, walking.
At the west end of State Street rests the University of Wisconsin, where students are known to complain about the steep climb up Bascom Hill to the administration building, which offers a stunning view of the city and the Capitol dome.
Even with 40,000 students mostly walking to and from class — and bars at night — Madison has a remarkable bike trail system, with more than 30 miles of trails and 110 miles of bike lanes even on the busiest of streets. Not to mention the 6,000 acres of parkland.
Zac Stencil, 23, a senior at the university, said he walks about two miles every day to and from classes.
"You can meet cool groups of people who are walking beside you," Stencil said. "Plus, when the lakes are frozen you can walk right across."