Walking is the perfect exercise. It builds fitness, burns calories, prevents weight gain, protects against heart disease, stroke and back pain and makes you live longer. Almost anyone can do it safely and without injury. You don’t need to join a fancy, expensive gym and you can do it almost anywhere. Walking is the ultimate stress reducer. A brisk walk helps clear your head, takes your mind off rising gas prices, bills and the problems of daily life, and provides a metabolic tune-up that invigorates you for the rest of the day. A short walk is a present that you give to yourself. It is your private time to think, reflect or space out. It’s better than yoga, tai chi, Pilates, spinning, or step because walking is a neural reflex already built into your nervous system.
Regular walking is the single-most important lifestyle change that will improve your health and quality of life. It will change you from a weight gainer to a weight loser, spice up your sex life and give you a daily energy injection. It’s simple, safe, painless and fun. It won’t turn you into an Olympic athlete, but it will change your life.
Walking and Your “Inner Gym”
Scientists have learned a lot about exercise and health in the last 50 years. The first exercise recommendations issued in the 1960s urged people to jog or run for 20 minutes, three to six days per week. While you’ll get in great shape if you follow this advice, most people won’t do it. In fact, only 12 percent of Americans exercise vigorously every week. Twenty-five percent don’t do any exercise and 50 percent don’t exercise even moderately.
You don’t have to train like a track star to get the benefits of exercise. Thousands of scientific studies showed conclusively that walking briskly 30 minutes, five times per week would give you most of the health benefits of any exercise program. While you will build better fitness and metabolic health exercising intensely for 20 to 60 minutes per workout, you get most of the health benefits of exercise by walking regularly at a moderate intensity. Also, you won’t get hurt in a moderate-intensity walking program the way you would jogging intensely.
Walking is like carrying around a self-contained gym. You can do it anywhere. Walk in the park, on the beach, in the mountains, around the neighborhood or in the mall. If you are uncomfortable about exercising in public, walk on a treadmill, climb stairs at home or do laps around the house. In a pinch, you can walk in place.
A Walk a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
The media barrages us with warnings and information about cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, sexual dysfunction and energy loss. Walking improves metabolic health. It stimulates the cells to build mitochondria, which are cell structures that provide energy for most chemical reactions occurring in the body. Walking improves blood vessel health by increasing the secretion of a chemical called nitric oxide, which has far-reaching effects on everything from energy levels to sexual satisfaction. Walking reduces whole-body inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke and some cancers. It helps keep body fat in check and improves blood sugar metabolism. Walking builds fitness so that you are ready for the challenges of daily life.
In adults over 60, physical fitness is the best predictor of longevity. High-intensity exercise, such as running and jogging, builds aerobic fitness faster than any other form of physical activity. It also presents a high risk of injury. The goal for most people should be to build fitness and metabolic health through exercise that does not cause joint and muscle injury.
Walking reduces medical health care costs. Studies from the United States and Japan showed that those who walked regularly reduced doctor visits by 12 percent. People of all ages and fitness levels benefit quickly from a walking program. The studies showed health benefits occurring within weeks of beginning the program and these benefits only got better as people continued walking.
Walking is the only proven method for preventing and treating common causes of back pain. While core stabilization exercises improve back health in many people, walking is the only method that consistently reduced back pain in scientific studies. Walking works best when you walk at a fast pace and swing your arms freely.
Staying on Your Walking Program
Ninety percent of success in life is showing up. The best, most sophisticated walking program in the world won’t do any good unless you do it. Health experts found that simple motivators such as pedometers, walking a dog or parking farther from work or the grocery store help people to stay with their walking programs.
Begin with a good pair of walking shoes that don’t hurt your feet. The best shoes are flexible, supportive and provide cushion. No single shoe is best for everyone, so find one that you like and feels good. If you have special problems, such as pronated feet or plantar fasciitis, ask an exercise expert (i.e., sports podiatrist, physical therapist, track coach) for advice on which shoes might be best for you.
Wear comfortable clothes appropriate for the weather. Carry a water bottle if you walk long distances, particularly on hot days. Bring along a sweatshirt or sweater and gloves if the weather is particularly cold or snowy. Use a pedometer or GPS exercise device to track your progress.
The 10,000-step program is a great motivator that encourages people to walk more. Most sedentary people take 2,000 to 3,000 steps per day. Use one of these devices to help you increase your daily step count, with an eventual goal of 10,000 steps per day. Begin by taking an additional 1,000 steps per day and increase gradually until you achieve the 10,000-step goal. You will benefit most by increasing your step count through walking sessions lasting at least 10 minutes.
Walking a dog is a great way to increase the consistency of your walking program. Regular exercise is important for your dog’s health. While many people will neglect their own health, they will do whatever it takes to keep their dog healthy.
Find a safe, convenient place to walk. You shouldn’t have to worry about personal safety. Also, walk on a trail, path or sidewalk so that a car or bicycle won’t hit you. Wear bright-colored clothes so that you can be seen easily.
Beginning a Walking Program
Start slowly if you have not been exercising, are overweight or are recovering from an illness or surgery. Walk at first for 15 minutes at a slow pace. Gradually increase to 30-minute sessions. The distance you travel will probably be 1-2 miles. At the beginning, walk every other day. You can gradually increase to walking five days per week or more if you want to burn more calories (helpful if you want to change body composition). Depending upon your weight, you can expect to burn 90-135 calories during each 30 minute walking session. To increase the calories that you burn, walk for a longer time or for a longer distance rather than sharply increasing speed.
Start at whatever level is most comfortable. Maintain a normal, easy pace and stop to rest as often as you need to. Never prolong a walk past the point of comfort. When walking with a friend (a good motivation), let a comfortable conversation be your guide to pace.
Once your muscles have become adjusted to the exercise program, increase the duration of your sessions by no more than 10 percent each week. Don’t be discouraged by a lack of immediate progress and don’t try to speed things up by overdoing. Remember that pace and heart rate can vary with the terrain, the weather and other factors.
Try to walk for 30 to 90 minutes. Begin by walking at a fairly brisk pace. You should feel an increased perception of effort, but the exercise intensity should not be too stressful. Vary your pace to allow for intervals of slow, medium and fast walking. Walking at first for 30 minutes and gradually increase your walking time until eventually you reach 60 minutes at a brisk pace. The distance you walk will probably be 2-4 miles. Try to walk at least five days per week. Vary your program by changing the pace and distance walked or by walking routes with different terrains and views. You can expect to burn 200-350 calories during each advanced walking session.
A GPS exercise watch is a good motivational tool for advanced walkers. Several of these units can be plugged into programs such as Google Earth, which can give you a satellite view of your walking route. While high-tech gadgets are fun and motivational, they do not substitute for the hard work of pounding the pavement.
What Are You Waiting For?
Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” the power to change is within you. You’ve had the neurological ability to walk since you were a year old. Why not start using it? You can get most of the benefits of exercise through walking. You don’t need to take an exercise class, hire a personal trainer or join an expensive gym. Just go for a walk!
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