Make Your Walk a Workout
How to start (and stick to) a walking program, whether you’re new to exercise or already fit.
When I was in college we started a community walking program.As one of the simplest exercises, walking requires no equipment aside from a good, supportive pair of walking shoes. “Exercise doesn’t have to be hard to be effective,” says Julia Valentour, MS, exercise physiologist and program coordinator for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “The recommended 30 minutes can be broken up into two, 15-minute sessions or even three, 10-minute sessions, making it easy to weave into a busy lifestyle.”
Weight loss isn’t the only benefit of a walking program. Regular walking helps lower cholesterol, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, increases bone strength, and improves circulation.
“Just a few extra steps each day is a simple and easy way to take an active role in maintaining a significantly healthier life,” says Timothy Gardner, MD, past president of the American Heart Association.
Starting a Walking Program.
Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program if you’ve been inactive for a while.
To start your walking program:
Establish a baseline, says Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS, author of The Outdoor Athlete. “If you’ve been sedentary, start walking three times a week at a stroll for 20 minutes.” Work your way up to five or so times a week, 30 minutes per session, for a total of 2.5 to 3 hours per week.
Choose distance or time. Some walkers focus on distance, others target time. “Ultimately, it’s about speed,” Schurman says. “If you can walk five miles but it takes you five hours to do it, it’s not a fit level of work. So use both distance and time, as well as heart rate.”
Check the intensity. Exercising at a particular heart rate percentage enables you to gauge the difficulty of your workout.
You can check your heart rate by manually checking your pulse or purchase a simple heart rate monitor. Keep in mind, however, that the traditional heart rate formula standards do not fit everyone. “Most recommendations suggest starting out at 70% to 75% of your maximum heart rate, but this may not be enough if you’re fit,” Schurman says.
Or use the “talk test” to gauge your exercise intensity. “If you can string together six to eight words or chat briefly, you’re in your aerobic zone,” Schurman says. But if you find yourself gasping for air, lower the intensity. If you can say several phrases with one breath, you may not be working out hard enough.
Here are simple ways to keep your walks interesting and help you stay motivated:
Wear a pedometer. Bit by bit, boost your daily steps. “Wear a pedometer for a week to see what days you have the most number of steps,” Valentour says. “Then try to repeat the activities of that day and add another 500 steps the following week.” Keep it up until you reach 10,000 steps a day.
Keep a walking journal. It serves as a motivator by allowing you to see your progress, Valentour says.
Get a walking partner. “A walking buddy provides accountability. Neither wants to let the other person down,” Valentour says.
Sign up for a race or charity walk. It gives you a goal to shoot for, which may motivate you to stick with a program.
Find support online. Programs such as the American Heart Association’s StartWalkingNow.org program have helped thousands of people to get started walking. Designed by the American Council on Exercise, the free online program includes a monthly newsletter with health tips and recipes, an online activity and nutrition tracker, access to an online journal, as well as the ability to connect with others for support and motivation. A search option also allows you to look for walking paths in your area.
“You simply go online, register, and take a quiz,” Valentour says. “You’ll receive a 12-16 week downloadable program.” Beginners start with five to 10 minutes; advanced exercisers start with more challenging options.
Tips to Make It More Challenging
If you’re already fit, walking may seem too easy. But it’s easy to kick up the intensity for a more challenging workout. Here’s how:
Speed up. “The easiest way to up the ante is to simply walk faster,” says Therese Iknoian, MS, author of Fitness Walking. You may even want to try race walking, which uses more muscles and, therefore, burns more calories. Brisk walking at four miles an hour burns 334 calories and strolling at three miles per hour burns 221 calories, acc
ording to the American College of Sports Medicine. “Remember to pump your arms but keep the movement compact,” Iknoian says. “The larger the arm swing, the harder it is to move them faster.”
Head for the hills. Walking up hills also increases intensity, as does lifting the incline on a treadmill. But don’t hon to the treadmill as you walk or you’ll negate the benefits, Iknoian says. “You don’t want to look as if you’re waterskiing.” Hanging on makes your body perpendicular to the treadmill, so ergonomically you’re walking on flat ground.
Change the surface. Consider changing your walking surface for a greater challenge. “Walking on trails and maneuvering around rocks increases muscular demand,” Iknoian says. Snow, sand — even grass — makes walking more of a challenge.
Use Nordic poles to get upper body muscles involved. “You increase the cardio workout when using poles, plus they take the stress off of knees when walking downhill,” Iknoian says.
Add resistance with a weighted backpack or weight vest. “If you use a backpack, fill it with water, sand, or kitty litter so the weight distributes evenly,” Schurman says. “Avoid ankle and hand weights, which can change your gait and can set you up for injury.”
8 Safety Tips for Walkers
Keep safety in mind when you walk outdoors. Follow these basic rules:
  • Walk with a buddy whenever possible.
  • Carry your name, address, and a friend or relative’s phone number in your shoe or tied to a lace.
  • Wear a medical bracelet if you have diabetes, an allergy, or other condition.
  • Carry a cell phone and let a friend or relative know your walking routes.
  • Avoid deserted or unlit streets, especially after dark.
  • Do not use headsets that prevent you from hearing traffic; and walk against oncoming traffic.
  • Wear reflective material and/or carry a flashlight to others can see you.
  • Carry a whistle or noisemaker or pepper spray in case of an emergency.
Above all, make walking fun and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
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