You don’t have to climb Mount Everest to get fit; you can do it right in your own neighborhood. Recent research shows that getting 30 minutes a day of any type of moderate physical activity can be as powerful as the best diabetes medications available. Exercise boosts not only your energy and your mood, but also your cells’ sensitivity to insulin, which allows your cells to soak up more glucose and lowers blood sugar levels. Get moving with these simple strategies.
1. Walk Fido every day. Dog owners walk more than people without dogs. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be healthier, with less body fat, according to a new study from the University of California, San Diego. But not every pooch “parent” takes advantage of these exercise opportunities. And those who don’t walk their four-legged friends don’t get the health perks. If you don’t own a dog, offer to take the neighbor’s dog for a walk, or join your neighbor in his or her daily jaunt.
2. Volunteer at a local animal shelter to walk a pooch several times a week. Most shelters will let you participate with a little bit of training. Have a favorite breed? You can find rescue centers for labs, retrievers, even Schnoodles (Schnauzer/poodle mixes) by asking at your local humane society, animal shelter, or veterinary hospital. You can also try searching online by typing in the name of the breed, “rescue center,” and your town.
3. Sweep and weed your sidewalk once a week. Making a habit of keeping a tidy path in front of your house will make it more inviting to others, give you a chance to say hello to your fellow citizens while you’re weeding — and burn off 100 calories in just 20 minutes of vigorous work.
4. Stroll to your neighborhood mailbox. Instead of leaving outgoing mail in your home mailbox, walk your bill, magazine subscription, or birthday card to the government mailbox a few blocks away, or even to the post office if it’s within a mile or so from your home. Not only will you benefit from the blood-sugar-stabilizing activity, your check will be safer than it would be sitting in front of your house.
5. Return misdelivered mail to its rightful home on foot. It happens to everyone: You get a letter that should have gone to the house one or two blocks over. Instead of marking it “wrong address” and clipping it to your mailbox, look at the post as an opportunity to get a few minutes of activity, some fresh air, and a chance to meet a neighbor. 6. Take your newspaper on a daily walk. When you step outside for your morning paper, take the opportunity to go around your block one time. The fresh morning air will help wake you up — sans caffeine — and you’ll start your day off right with a few extra steps. You’ll knock off five minutes of exercise from your 30-minutes-a-day goal before you even sit down to have breakfast.
7. Take advantage of your sidewalk. It’s there, it’s free, and all you need is a good pair of walking shoes to use it. Begin gradually, with a 15- to 20-minute walk. Start strolling slowly for about three to five minutes, then pick up your pace for 10 minutes and cool down for another three to five minutes. Each week, add two to three minutes to the faster portion of your walk. Within a few weeks, you’ll be up to walking briskly for 30 minutes most days a week.
8. Try out a pair of walking poles. You’ll burn far more calories on your neighborhood walks with these poles, which you use like a cross-country skier. Called fitness trekking or Nordic walking, walking with these poles can boost your calorie burn 20 to 50 percent over regular strolling because the poles recruit the muscles in your upper body. Poles can also be helpful if you need a little extra stability or want to take some impact off of your legs. Follow the instructions that come with the poles. You might also be able to find a lesson through your local health club, community center, or YMCA. You can order poles and get instructional tips at www.exerstrider.com or www.nordicwalking.com.
9. Say your ABCs out loud. When you’re out walking for exercise, your pace shouldn’t be so tough that you’re gasping for air, or so easy that you can babble nonstop to your exercise buddy without breaking a sweat. If you’re by yourself, recite the alphabet. If it’s no problem, pick up your pace. If you start huffing by the letter F, slow down.
10. Rate your exercise intensity. Another good rule of thumb: On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being running as fast as you can, and 1 being sitting on the couch, you want to aim for about a 6 or 7. At that intensity, you should be breathing harder than normal but still able to carry on a simple conversation.
11. Clip on a pedometer in the morning. The little gadget will keep track of how many steps you take that day — and subtly encourage you to take even more. Try to take 500 additional steps each week, aiming - ultimately for as many as 10,000 steps a day. In case you’re curious, 1,000 steps equal one-half mile.
12. Keep a step log. It takes approximately six months for a new behavior to become habit. To help you lock in your walking habit, write down your steps after you take off your pedometer every night. Recording your progress helps you stay focused.
13. Crummy weather? Take a mall walk. Check your mall to see if they offer a mall-walking program or early morning hours for walkers. If it doesn’t, you can still get there first thing in the morning — hours before the teens get out of bed — do a few laps, and then treat yourself to a skim milk latte. Invite a friend along, and agree to do one quick lap for some harder exercise, and then one moderate lap for a little bit of window shopping — then repeat, one fast lap/one relaxed, on the upper level.
14. Promote your own mall-walking program. If your mall doesn’t have a walking program, consider talking to the mall management. Some malls don’t want to be responsible for possible injuries, and if this is the case, suggest that the staff develop a consent form that walkers must sign before joining the program. If you have friends, neighbors, and coworkers who want to mall walk, ask them to call the public relations department of the mall to express their interest. You may even want to volunteer your time to get the program under way.
15. Formalize your new walking club. Arrange to convene at a local coffee shop following your first or second walk. Hand out name tags and have a sign-in sheet for everyone to list their names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses so you can contact them about future walks. Next discuss how often you’ll walk, when and where to meet, what to do in case of bad weather, the speed of the walk, and the distance you’ll cover. If you have a large group, consider breaking into smaller groups based on fitness level, availability, or other factors.
16. Look for ways to motivate the group. You might choose a name for your walking crew, order shirts, have a monthly potluck (healthy of course), enter a walking event with a cause, or set goals to increase the length of your walks or your walking pace. Share the responsibility by asking each member to lead some of the walks and have them plan the route.
17. Use your car to clock errands you could do on foot. Put a sticky note on your dashboard that says “Clock a route” to remind you to check the mileage on all the places you typically go in a day. Is the library a mile away? How about the ATM? Many people don’t realize how many errands could be done on foot with a little planning, says Mark Fenton, world-renowned environmental walking coach.
18. Grab binoculars and go bird watching. You can pick up a beginning birding book at a local bookstore. Look for one that includes birds in your region. It’s a great way to enjoy nature and connect with wildlife right in your own community. Observing the beauty of birds and discussing them with friends, neighbors, or your children can be a fun and stimulating experience. Interacting with nature tends to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and help people relax.
19. Put a “Could I walk or ride my bike?” sticky note on your front door. Having a prompt (like the famous string around the finger) in plain view will cue you to ask yourself if you really need to hop in your car to take the books back to the library, pick up a prescription, or visit a friend. Post a second note on your dash that says “Could I walk halfway?” so you’ll be encouraged to park a few blocks from whatever errand you’re running.
20. Go on a village scavenger hunt. Whether you have kids, grandkids, nieces, or nephews, this activity never fails: Jot a list that includes items such as five red cars, three houses with yellow daisies, two cats, four stop signs, and so on. After you’ve compiled several “treasures” for the kids to find, head out around the neighborhood until you’ve found all the items on the list. You can make several lists and have friendly competitions. The first one to complete the list wins.
21. Make after-dinner walks a regular habit. Instead of collapsing in front of the TiVo, create a tradition of post-meal strolls with a partner. If you have young kids, you can play games to keep the little ones entertained. Remember the Alphabet Game during long family car trips? You can play it while walking. Look for signs, bumper stickers, and personalized license plates on cars, and watch for words that begin with each letter of the alphabet. Once you’ve found one letter, move on to the next.
22. Make a list of five active things you can do in your community. Hang the list on your fridge, and when you’re out of ideas for an active weekend activity, look to your list. For example, you could bike to a local park for a picnic, hoof it to the library, or plan to meet friends at a halfway location to which you can both walk.
23. Have a monthly trash patrol day. Grab a shopping bag and head out around your block for 20 minutes. Rope in a few neighbors to join you. Every time you have to bend to pick up an article, turn the move into a squat: Extend your buttocks behind you and pretend you’re about to sit in an invisible chair until your upper legs are almost parallel to the ground. You’ll build leg muscles and sculpt your rear view. Building muscle helps the body become more insulin sensitive, and it boosts your metabolism.
24. Lace up walking shoes for active living every day. You may think that any old shoe is fine, but footwear designed for walking will encourage you to move more and will decrease your risk of injury. A good shoe should be flexible in the ball of the foot, but not in the arch. (A shoe that bends in the arch can put strain on tendons in the feet.) The heel should be cushioned (because that’s where your foot strikes) and also rounded to encourage an easy and speedy heel-toe motion. It’s best to visit a local, independently owned running store. Whether you have low or high arches, the salespeople in a competent technical fitness store will watch you walk barefoot and help you choose the features you need.
25. Burn calories at the little ones’ soccer games. Instead of taking your folding chair and a crossword puzzle, wear comfortable shoes and take a jaunt around the field during soccer or baseball games when your child isn’t playing. You can still cheer while in motion. Or take your walk before the game starts, when the kids are warming up. Remember, physical activity enhances the action of insulin (the hormone that lowers your blood sugar), which often results in better blood sugar control.