Maintaining a regular exercise regimen is often a challenge as we try to balance work, family schedules and personal commitments. Even with the best intentions, it can be difficult to carve out time for the exercise we need to stay healthy.
Walking is an easy way to be physically active, and one of the body’s most natural forms of exercise. You can even do it when you’re traveling! Just thirty minutes a day can improve your overall health and extend your life. Experts presenting at the 55th Annual Meeting of The American College of Sports Medicine (Indianapolis 2008) proposed that “walking may offer the best combination of ease and accessibility of any exercise activity.”
Walking for fitness can lead to numerous important health benefits. Aside from helping you relax and sleep better, walking will:
Reduce risk of heart attack by lowering your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raising your “good” cholesterol.
Manage your blood pressure, which is also important for heart health.
Reduce risk of developing type 2 diabetes by improving your body’s ability to process sugar (glucose tolerance).
Manage existing type 2 diabetes by lowering your blood sugar and reducing risk of heart disease.
Manage your weight and body fat by burning calories. (Example: According to an article published by Mayo Clinic Staff in December 2006 titled Walking for fitness: How to trim your waistline, improve your health, middle-aged women who walk more than 10,000 steps a day have lower levels of body fat than women who are less active.)
Improve bone health and reduce risk of osteoporosis. (The National Osteoporosis Foundation lists walking as one of the best low-impact activities for increasing bone density.)
The best part is that you can walk almost anytime, anywhere and, aside from the right shoes, it’s free!
Before beginning any form of exercise, it is important to check with your doctor if you’re being treated for problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, joint issues or a respiratory condition.
The best way to get started is to just do it! Include a walk in your schedule today—10 minutes at lunchtime, perhaps? Tomorrow, do the same thing and so on until a walk becomes part of your daily routine.
A successful walking program requires a plan. Proper preparation will also go a long way toward preventing injuries such as blisters or muscle pain. Be sure to:
Have the right shoes and the right clothing. Proper fitting shoes with a sturdy heel are critical for protecting your feet, legs and back. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothes that “breathe” and allow perspiration to evaporate. If walking after dark, be sure to wear bright colors or reflective tape so motorists can see you.
Warm up. Walk slowly for five minutes to warm up your muscles.
Stretch calf muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back and chest muscles.
Ready, set, walk! Unless you’re a seasoned walker, remember to start slow and easy. Walk as far and as fast as is comfortable. It’s fine to start with short daily walks (3-5 minutes) and increase your distance, pace and time as your tolerance improves.
Stay hydrated. Be sure to take a bottle of water along when you walk.
Cool down. Again, as with other forms of exercise, cooling/slowing down gradually will reduce heart and muscle stress. Walk slowly for about five minutes, then repeat your stretches.
Getting started on your walking program is a big step, but it’s not the only challenge. Staying motivated and sticking with your plan takes commitment:
Set realistic goals and track your progress. Make a plan that you can stick to. It’s probably unrealistic to think that you can walk for an hour every day, but 30 minutes five days a week might be something you could do. Track how far you walk and how long it takes.
Have fun! If you don’t enjoy walking by yourself, invite someone to join you. Walking with a partner is a great way to pass the time and stay motivated.
Stick with it. If something prevents you from keeping your regular walking schedule, don’t be discouraged. Consider it a temporary interruption and get back on track. If you have to vary your plan, think of ways to incorporate a short walk into your day. One 30-minute walk can be broken into three 10-minute walks throughout the day. If you have the choice, take the stairs instead of the elevator. The most important thing is to keep moving.
Bear in mind that walking for fitness should be an aerobic exercise. Aerobic means that exercise is carried out at a comfortable pace to ensure that the muscles have sufficient oxygen available. If you are gasping for breath, you are doing anaerobic exercise—slow down. Regular aerobic exercise done three times a week for 30 minutes or more will result in increased levels of fitness and aerobic capacity. The more you walk, the better you’ll feel; so take that first step toward better health.