The popularity of walking as a fitness activity has grown by leaps and bounds. Low-risk and easy to start, walking has proven its health benefits in numerous studies. An eight-year study of 13,000 people found that those who walked 30 minutes a day had a significantly lower risk of premature death than those who rarely exercised. In addition, research has shown that regular walking can decrease total and intra-abdominal fat and reduce your risk of developing diabetes or breast cancer.
A regular walking program can also:
- Improve your cholesterol profile
- Lower blood pressure
- Increase your energy and stamina
- Boost ďcouch potatoĒ bone strength
- Prevent weight gain
Experts at the CDC and National Institute of Health recommend that every American adult engage in 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity just about every day of the week. One way to meet this standard is to walk 2 miles briskly (about 4 miles/hr). If this is too fast, choose a more comfortable pace.
A walking program is simple to start. All you need are comfortable clothes and supportive shoes. Layer loose clothing, keeping in mind that brisk exercise elevates the bodyís temperature. Shoes specifically designed for walking or running are best. Make sure you have a little wiggle room between your longest toe (1/2") and the end of the shoe. Avoid cotton socks since they retain moisture and can promote blisters.
- Begin with short distances. Start with a stroll that feels comfortable to you (perhaps 5-10 minutes) and gradually increase your time or distance each week by 10-20% (add just a few minutes or blocks). If itís easier on your joints and your schedule to take a couple shorter walks (10-20 minutes) instead of one long walk (30-40 minutes) each day, do it!
- Focus on posture. Keep your head lifted, tummy pulled in and shoulders relaxed. Swing your arms naturally. Avoid carrying hand weights since these put excessive stress on the elbows and shoulders. Donít overstride. Select a comfortable, natural step length. If you want to move faster, pull your back leg through more quickly.
- Breathe deeply. If you canít converse or catch your breath while walking, slow down. Initially, forget about walking speed. Just get out there on a regular basis and establish a habit of activity.
To warm up, walk at an easy tempo for the first several minutes. Then gradually adopt a more purposeful pace. A good way to add variety into your walk is to incorporate some brisk intervals into your walk. For example, walk one block fast, two blocks slow and repeat several times. Gradually add more fast intervals with shorter recovery periods. Concentrate on increasing your speed while maintaining good posture.
Walking hills is a great way to tone the legs. The use of Nordic walking poles can boost the calorie-burning value of your walk while promoting good posture and overall muscle endurance. Treadmill walking, while not as scenic, can be a convenient option during inclement weather.
The end of your walk is an ideal time to stretch since your body is warmed up. Stretch your hamstrings and calves (important walking muscles) as well as your chest, shoulders and back. Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds.
Track your progress. Although experts recommend that you walk a minimum of 30 minutes a day, there are no hard and fast rules. If walking is part of your weight loss plan, more is better. Walking 60 minutes/day and brisk intervals will help you burn more calories. Fit walking into your schedule whenever you can. That may mean three 10-minute walks over the course of a day. The best schedule is one that keeps you walking and keeps you fit!
Avoid traffic accidents. Listening to lively music while you walk is a great way to energize your workout. But if you wear headphones, keep the volume down and watch out for traffic that you may not hear. Wearing light colors or reflective clothing is best as well as carrying a flashlight or glow stick if you walk when visibility is low. Walking on sidewalks is best, but if you have to walk on the street, stick to streets with lower speed limits. Faster streets are riskier because motorists are less likely to see pedestrians and cannot stop as quickly. Accidents involving pedestrians have an 85% chance of becoming fatal if the car is moving at 40 mph as compared to only 5% if the speed is 20 mph.
Know your area. Pay attention to what businesses are open in the area youíll be walking and know the location of emergency telephones. Walk on well-traveled streets rather than taking shortcuts in less crowded areas such as alleys or parking lots. If you give the message that you are calm, self-assured and have a purposeful gait, youíll lower the chances of becoming a victim.
Two heads are better than one. Walking with a partner or in groups discourages crime and may help alert you to dangers such as speeding motorists or unleashed dogs.
If you experience foot, knee, hip or back pain when walking, STOP and check with your doctor to find out the cause. You may need special exercises or better shoes. If you have osteoarthritis and experience increased joint pain lasting an hour or two after walking, consider an alternate activity like stationery cycling or water exercise. Donít stop exercising altogether!