Walk to a Healthier, Slimmer You

Maximize this basic aerobic exercise for lasting results.

It’s so simple and convenient it couldn’t possibly count as exercise, right? Wrong. Study after study shows that regular moderate walking can help you lose weight and reduce your risk of heart disease. Here are some ways both to sneak more walking into your life, and to get the most out of every step you take.

1. Learn the basics. Before you take your next step outdoors, you need to know how much walking to do, and how often. Here are the facts:

  • For it to be exercise, walk at a pace that has you breathing heavily, but still able to
    talk.
  • Your goal, first and foremost, is to walk five days a week, 30 minutes a walk. Do that, and you are getting the base-level amount of exercise that research says should maintain your health and vigor.
  • Don’t assume you can reach that goal quickly. Walking hard for 30 minutes is, well, hard! Walk for as long as you are comfortable the first week, even if it’s just to your mailbox and back. Each subsequent week, increase that amount by no more than 10 percent.
  • Start every walk with five minutes of easy-paced walking, about the same pace at which you’d do your grocery shopping, to get your body warmed up. Then, cool down at the end of each walk with another five minutes of easy-paced walking. This allows your heart rate to gradually speed up and slow down.
  • When you reach the target of 30 minutes a day, five days a week, set a new target. Either you should grow your walking habit by increasing your time, or you might be ready for new forms of exercise, such as strength-building exercises twice a week.

2. Pick a charity — it could be breast cancer, the American Red Cross, the United Way — and pledge to contribute $1 for every mile you walk. You’ll take pride in the fact that you are walking for something beyond yourself, which will motivate you to go longer and faster. After every walk, mark the amount you owe on a chart, and when you reach $100, send a check. Whoever thought exercise could be tax deductible?

3. Walk with a friend. If she’s expecting you, you’re more likely to get out of bed on cold winter mornings or skip the cafeteria for a lunchtime walk. If one of you backs out for any reason, put $5 in a kitty. Hopefully this will never happen, but if you manage to build up any substantial sum, donate it to charity.

4. Walk for entertainment one day a week. Instead of walking around your neighborhood, walk through the zoo, an art museum, or an upscale shopping mall. First circle the perimeter of your location at your usual brisk pace. Then wander through again more slowly to take in the sights.

5. Use a pedometer. These nifty gadgets measure how far you’ve walked in steps and miles. They provide motivation by spurring you to meet a particular goal and showing you if you’ve met it. And research shows that they work. In one study of 510 people completed at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin, people who wore a pedometer automatically increased the amount of steps they took in a day. Often, pedometers hook onto your belt and are small and easy to use.

6. Shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Don’t let that amount scare you. Most people walk about 5,500 to 7,500 steps during an average day as they amble to and from meetings, to the water cooler, to the mailbox. In fact, researchers who study these types of things consider 5,000 steps a day a “sedentary lifestyle.” According to researchers at Arizona State University in Mesa, you can cover 7,499 steps a day without participating in formal sports or exercise. If you garner 10,000 steps a day, you’re considered “active,” while 12,500 steps a day garners you the title “highly active.” Using your pedometer, find your baseline of how many steps you normally take in a day. Then increase that amount by at least 200 steps a day until you reach 10,000 to 12,500 daily steps.

7. Take the entire family on your daily walks. Not only will you be modeling good fitness habits for your children, but you’ll also be able to supervise them while you walk rather than getting a sitter. If your children walk too slowly, ask them to ride their bikes or roller-skate alongside you. To keep everyone entertained, play your usual repertoire of long car trip games such as “I Spy.” You can also try a scavenger walk, where you start out with a list of items to find during your walk and check off the list as you spot them.

8. Once a week, complete your errands on foot. If you live within a mile of town, or even a convenience store, start from your house. If you live out in the middle of nowhere, drive to within a mile of your destination, park, and walk the rest of the way there and back. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish on foot, and even better, how many people you’ll meet along the way.

9. Improve your walking posture. Proper posture will reduce discomfort as you walk and help you burn more fat and calories. So when you go on your next walk, readjust yourself to the following standards:

  • Stand tall with your spine elongated and breastbone lifted. This allows room for your lungs to fully expand.
  • Keep your head straight with your eyes focused forward and shoulders relaxed. Avoid slumping your shoulders forward or hunching them toward your ears.
  • Roll your feet from heel to toe.
  • As you speed up, take smaller, more frequent steps. This protects your knees and gives your butt a good workout.
  • Allow your arms to swing freely.
  • Firm your tummy and flatten your back as you walk to prevent low back pain.

10. Breathe deeply as you walk to a count of 1-2-3. Many people unintentionally hold their breath when they exercise and then suddenly feel breathless and tired. Oxygen is invigorating, and muscles need oxygen to create the energy for movement. So as you inhale, bring the air to the deepest part of your lungs by expanding your ribs outward and your tummy forward and inhale for a count of three. Then exhale fully either through your nose or mouth, also to the count of three.

11. Periodically pick up the pace. Boredom can quickly bring a walk to a premature end. Keep your mind and your body engaged by periodically picking up the pace or challenging yourself by trudging up a hill. Every 10 to 15 minutes, complete a 2- to 3-minute surge. During your surge, try to catch a real or imaginary walker ahead of you.

12. Explore on your walks. You can walk anywhere at any time, from your neighborhood to your local mall to your downtown main street to a local trail. You can even walk laps around your office building! Rather than walking the same old tired route day in and day out, use your walks as a way to experience and explore the great outdoors. Varying your route and terrain will do more than keep you mentally engaged. It will also help you to target different leg muscles, improving the effectiveness of every outing. One day you might walk through a section of your neighborhood that allows you to marvel at your neighbors’ gardens or home improvement projects. Another day you might head to the local park. Still another day you might walk downtown.

13. Take your dog with you (or get a dog). Once your dog gets used to your walks, he or she will look forward to them and give you a gentle nudge (or annoying whine) on the days you try to get out of it. There’s nothing more effective than a set of puppy dog eyes to extract your butt from the couch and get it out the door. In addition to walking the neighborhood, consider signing up for a dog agility class. During the class, you and your dog will circumvent a course with seesaws, hurdles, tunnels, and other obstacles. (Your dog tackles the obstacles. You run or walk alongside and yell the appropriate command.) Both you and your dog will get a great workout and you’ll end up with a better-behaved and calmer dog as a result. Don’t have a dog? Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog twice a week. That commitment thing will keep you motivated.

14. Pump up the volume. In a study published in the journal Chest, people with severe respiratory disease who listened to music while walking covered four more miles during the eight-week study than a similar group that did not listen to music while walking. Researchers speculate that listening to music made the participants feel less hindered by shortness of breath and distracted them from possible boredom and fatigue. You don’t have to have lung disease to benefit from music during your walks. Bring along a headset and play your favorite tunes.

15. Sign up for a stroller walk. If you’re a new mom, you don’t need us to tell you how hard it is to fit in time for fitness — not to mention time for other basics like taking a shower. The good news is you can take your infant on your walk. A growing number of hospitals and fitness centers, including the YMCA, offer group stroller walks for new moms. Entire franchises, such as StrollerFit and Stroller Strides, have popped up in communities around the country. These franchises promote 50-minute to one-hour workouts that combine walking, stretching, and strength training with elastic tubing for stretches and resistance work.

16. When you feel like blowing off your walk, promise yourself you’ll do just 10 minutes. “Head out the door for a short walk. Chances are, once you’ve warmed up, you’ll exercise for longer than you anticipated,” says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., nutrition and fitness expert at the University of California at Davis and author of Bounce Your Body Beautiful. “Even if you don’t walk longer, 10 minutes is better than no minutes at all.”

17. Five times a day, climb up and down a flight of stairs for two minutes. You’ll garner the same heart-rate-enhancing results in those 10 minutes as you would get from 36 minutes of walking on a level surface.

18. Roll out of bed, get dressed, put on your shoes, and go. It’s easy to get caught up in your day-to-day activities and tell yourself that you don’t have time for a walk. If you exercise first thing in the morning, however, you have no excuse. Research shows that people who plan to exercise in the morning are more likely to fit in their workouts than people who plan to exercise later in the day. Exercising in the morning may offer a side benefit: You’ll sleep better at night. When researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, compared morning and evening exercise, people who exercised at least 225 minutes per week in the morning had an easier time falling asleep at night than those who completed the same amount of exercise in the evening.

19. Or, walk in the evening. That sleep study aside, we still like after-dinner walks. They get you away from the television, they keep you from eating too much at dinner, it’s when your neighbors are outside, and it’s just a lovely time of day. Don’t let unlovely weather stop you either — that’s what jackets, boots, and umbrellas were invented for. There’s something childlike and fun about a walk in the rain or snow.

20. Learn your m.p.h. That’s miles per hour, of course, just like a car. Knowing it isn’t that useful, but we’re a nation of statistics lovers, and if monitoring your speed helps keep you motivated, then more power to you. A leisurely pace is 2 miles per hour, a healthy, brisk pace is 3.5 miles per hour, and going over 4 miles per hour is downright fast. A pedometer will measure this for you, but if you don’t have one, you can simply count your steps during various 15-second periods. For a normal grown-up stride, if you walk 15 steps in 15 seconds, you’re walking at a leisurely pace of 2 miles per hour, At 23 steps, you’re walking a moderate pace of 3 miles per hour, and at 30 steps, you’re walking about 4 miles per hour.

21. Walk in the prettiest area in your town (or the next town over). It just might encourage you to walk more often. When researchers from the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, surveyed walkers about their walking habits, they found that men who perceived their neighborhoods to be “aesthetic” were more consistent about walking around their neighborhoods. Other research finds that neighborhoods with well-maintained sidewalks and safe and well-lit walking areas encourage walking over neighborhoods that don’t have those features. In fact, people who live in so-called walkable neighborhoods walk an average of 70 more minutes each week than people who live in neighborhoods lacking such characteristics, according to a study completed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

22. If you’re over 60, walk on soft surfaces. As you age, the fat padding in your feet deteriorates. The absence of this natural shock absorber can make walking on sidewalks and other hard surfaces feel like foot torture. Flat grass and dirt paths will provide more cushioning for your feet than roads or sidewalks.

23. Train for an event. It’s a great motivator. Check your local sporting goods stores for calendars or flyers on walks being held in your area. Generally, these fun runs and walks raise money for a good cause. For example, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society offers a Team in Training program that will get you in marathon walking shape. Yes, that’s right, lots of people walk an entire 26.2 miles in one shot. The society assigns you a coach and walking plan, and you raise money through donations.

24. Apply some lube. If you’re a long-distance walker or somewhat overweight, chafing clothes can make you want to call it quits. You can solve the problem by wearing skin-hugging clothing and lubing up your sensitive areas with Vaseline. The Vaseline acts like a barrier to protect your skin.

25. Split it up. When you’re too busy to go for your usual 30- to 60-minute walk, split it up and get out there for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. That may be as simple as taking a 5-minute walk break around the building after completing a big project at work. Such short walking breaks will refresh your mind, so you can return to work with more vigor. In fact, research shows that most of us can only focus at top capacity for 30 minutes at a time. After that, concentration begins to drop off. Your intermittent walk breaks may actually make you more productive!

26. Shop at the mall instead of online. Walking around the mall can burn about 200 calories an hour, much more than what you will burn sitting on your tush as you surf the Net for great deals. You can increase the effectiveness of your walk and shop time by doing a lap around the mall between store visits.

27. Walk and talk. Use a cordless phone and walk around the house as you chat with friends or conduct your business. This is a great way to make use of those long times spent on hold with the IRS, phone company, or Internet service provider. Not only will you get some heart-healthy exercise, but the exercise will help you maintain your mental cool. Use your pedometer to count your steps and you’ll get the added bonus of feeling like you accomplished something rather than just wasting time.

28. Walk faster earlier in your walk. If you want to increase the amount of fat you burn during your walk, add some bursts of faster walking toward the beginning of your walk. Many walkers wait until the end of the walk to speed up, treating their faster walking as a finishing kick. Yet a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that exercisers burned more fat and felt less fatigued when they inserted their faster segments toward the beginning of a workout. It works because you speed up your heart rate early and keep it elevated for the rest of your walk.

29. Feel each muscle you use in your walk. Concentrate on different muscle areas: calves, hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps. Feel the movement in each area as you walk. The motivation you’ll get from realizing the bang you’re getting for your walking buck (all those muscles!) will keep you walking longer.

30. Take light weights (3 to 5 pounds) on your walks. Periodically work in arm exercises as you walk. This does more than increase the benefit of the workout. Carrying weights also builds muscle, and each pound of muscle burns about 30-50 more calories a day. Build a couple of pounds of muscle in your arms alone and you’ll burn an extra 100 calories a day — even while you’re just channel surfing. Not into weights? Try isometric exercises of the arms, chest, and abdominal muscles. For instance, as you walk, go through the motion of throwing a punch in slow motion. As you extend your arm, tense the muscles along it and do the same as you retract it. You should feel tension in your triceps, biceps, deltoids, and pectoral muscles. Then repeat with your arms going straight up and down, or out to the side, rather than straight ahead. You can also tense your chest muscles by bringing your hands together in front of your body and contracting across the chest and shoulders. Do this rhythmically to match your gait. Also try doing curls with no weights. Simply curl your arms alternately, in rhythm with your gait. Each time you curl your forearms, tense your biceps.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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