Walk Your Way to Better Health
Compared with other forms of exercise, walking can seem so ... pedestrian.
Running is dynamic. In-line skating is flashy. Biking has great accessories. But walking?
"Walking is still the most viable exercise option for most people," says Glen Duncan, Ph.D., an exercise researcher at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "You don't have the injury problems that can happen with running, and it's an activity that gets most people into their target heart rate."
Over 81 million Americans have already caught on, according to a survey by the National Sporting Goods Association.
Still not convinced walking is for you? Let's look at your reservations one at a time.
I don't have enought time
Do you have nine minutes a day? A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that walking at a moderate pace as little as an hour per week halved the risk of coronary heart disease for a group of women 45 and older. That's much less time than the standard proposed by the American College of Sports Medicine and other groups: a half-hour of physical activity on most days. But for people who normally don't exercise, a few minutes a day can make a big difference. "The women we studied were like the general American public. They were pretty sedentary," says the study's lead researcher, I-Min Lee, Sc.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The study showed "physical activity is not an all-or-nothing situation. Even if you do a little you can benefit." View an hour a week as a minimum, she says. "I would recommend that people aim for the current recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise a day, four to five days a week. That is a very sensible level where you get health benefits almost risk-free."
I can't get motivated
You're not alone. Dr. Duncan says more than a quarter of all Americans report that they don't engage in any consistent physical activity. "By the time people come home from a long day at work, after fighting traffic, most people just don't feel like doing much of anything," he says.
But Dr. Lee feels her study offers an encouraging message. "An hour a week is a very doable goal as a starting point for just about everybody," she says.
Walking is a relatively easy alternative to plopping down in front of the television. It can be done just about anywhere, and a good pair of shoes is the only equipment you need.
Walking isn't intense enough
To reap health benefits from exercise, you need to get your heart pumping at 55 to 65 percent of capacity.
"That's going to fall into the category of walking for most people," Dr. Duncan says.
A simple formula can tell you if you're reaching your target heart rate:
1. Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate.
2. Multiply that number by 0.6.
3. The number you get equals the heartbeats you want to achieve per minute.
For example, the target heart rate for a 35-year-old woman would be roughly 110 (220 minus 35 equals 185 times 0.6 equals 111).
If a stroll doesn't do it, you can always pick up the pace (after checking with your doctor). Howard "Jake" Jacobson, executive director of the Walkers Club of America, suggests pumping your arms like a sprinter, finding terrain with hills, and even jogging for short stretches to boost your walking workout.
Walking can be a social activity. And that's not just because it's easy to hold a conversation.
You can find strength in numbers by joining a walking club. The Walking Club of America, for instance, has groups in many cities (write to P.O. Box 7601, Jupiter, FL 33468 for information).
Walking can also be the centerpiece of a vacation with friends or family. You can hike in national parks or walk well-traveled U.S. trails. You can even explore other nations by booking a walking tour through a travel agent.
Walking in safety
Walking is probably the safest form of activity. But there are still some safety tips you should keep in mind:
• Try to walk in well-traveled areas during daylight hours.
• If you do walk before sunrise or at night, wear light-colored or white clothing. You can also buy reflective strips for your clothing and shoes.
• Always walk facing traffic to see what's coming toward you.
• Skip the headphones. You should always be aware of your surroundings.
• If possible, walk with someone else.
• Don't run from or stare at an unfriendly dog. With your eyes averted, back away while shouting "no."
• If you hear thunder or spot lightning, head for home.
Get off on the right foot
Putting one foot in front of the other may get you across the floor, but exercise walking is a bit more involved. We asked Howard "Jake" Jacobson, executive director of the Walkers Club of America, about the most common mistakes made by a beginning walker. His advice:
• Wear proper shoes: You don't play basketball in wingtips, do you? They make shoes designed for walking. Buy a pair.
• Warm up by walking slower for the first few minutes.
• Stretch: Yes, you need to warm up even for walking. Mr. Jacobson recommends stretching a half-mile into your walk and then again when you're done for greater flexibility. Stretch your calves, hamstrings, hips and thighs. Four simple stretches, done in as little as five to 10 minutes, will do the trick.
• Keep hydrated: You lose water when you walk. Drink a glass a few minutes before you start. Then carry a bottle of water with you or, if possible, stop at fountains along the way.
• Don't overstride: Extending beyond your normal stride length jolts your joints and actually slows you down.
• Don't use ankle or hand weights: Weights add unnecessary momentum to your movements, interrupting the natural flow of your walk.
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