According to the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 80,000 women for more than 20 years, just a half hour of brisk walking a day — that’s 30 minutes, or the time it takes to watch one sitcom — can slash your risk of a heart attack by 30 to 40 percent.
There are many reasons why walking is ideal for the core of your exercise plan. Among them:
Walking is safer than jogging. Because a walker lands with just one-fifth the force of a runner, walking is much easier on your joints and ligaments.
Anyone can walk. It’s a good option even for people who are pregnant, have arthritis, have heart disease, or are just recovering from a heart attack.
It’s inexpensive. A pair of shoes and socks are all you need.
You’ll stick with it. Only 25 percent of people who walk for exercise quit, compared to 50 or 60 percent of those who start other exercises.
You can do it anywhere, anytime. Bad weather? Walk in the mall. On vacation? Walking is a great way to see the sites. Overdue for an outing with friends? Schedule a scenic hike.
It’s easy to vary the intensity. To work harder, walk faster or walk up and down stairs or hills. Feeling tired or recovering from an illness? Slow it down.
In order to lower your risk of heart attack, gradually start walking at least 30 minutes a day (60 if you need to lose weight) on most days. On top of that you’ll look for opportunities to fit walking into the rest of your day.
Before you begin, find out where you stand now in terms of aerobic fitness. Walk a mile (that’s four laps around a high school track). Record how long it takes you and what your heart rate, or pulse, is immediately after you finish. Try this again in four weeks. Chances are your time, heart rate, or both will have improved. (If you walk faster as you get fitter, your heart rate may not decrease.) To take your pulse, place two fingers on your wrist near your thumb, or on the side of your neck just below your Adam’s apple. Adjust your fingers until you feel a strong pulse. Count the number of pulses in 30 seconds, then multiply by 2.
Tricks of the Trade
Walking is a gentle sport, but you do need to pay attention to your form and protect your body from any strains or injuries. It’s not difficult — just follow these tips:
- When possible walk on a soft surface such as a running track, dirt road, or grass, instead of a hard sidewalk or road, to cushion the impact on your joints.
- Increase your mileage or time in small increments. In other words, don’t go from 0 to 5 miles in two days.
- Keep your arms bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Hold your body fully upright, with your shoulders pulled slightly back and pushed down, not rounded. (Try to squeeze or pinch your shoulder blades together.) Don’t thrust your head forward; keep your ears aligned with your shoulders. Your hands should be slightly clenched.
- Bring your hands no higher than shoulder height in the forward motion, and keep them by the side of your body in the backward motion. This is especially important if you’re using hand weights for added resistance. And stay away from ankle weights while walking; using them can throw off your natural gait, which may lead to injuries.
While you can walk in any pair of sturdy, comfortable shoes, you may want to invest in a specifically designed walking shoe for optimal comfort and safety. If you do, follow these tips:
Start with socks. While you’re at the shoe store, buy some new socks, too. Look for padded socks made of acrylic. Acrylic tends to wick away perspiration — which active feet can produce from 250,000 sweat glands at a rate of 4 to 6 ounces a day — better than cotton or wool.
Get the timing right. Try shoes on in the afternoon, since your feet swell enough during the day to affect your shoe size. Make sure to try them on with athletic socks.
Go for a three-way fit. The longest of your toes should clear the end of the shoe by about one-half inch (about the width of your thumb). The ball of your foot should fit comfortably into the widest part of the shoe. And the heel of your foot should fit snugly in the back without any slippage.
Replace shoes often. Trade in your shoes when you’ve walked 350 to 550 miles in them. If you’re logging about 15 miles a week (2 to 3 miles a day, five days a week), that means replacing them about every six months. Once your shoes have covered that much distance they will have lost their shock-absorption capacity and some of their stability. To see if it’s time for a new pair, place your shoes on a table and look at them from behind. Check for wear and tear of the sole. If they’re leaning to one side, the midsole cushioning is probably shot. The next time you’re in a shoe store, try on a new pair of the model that you are currently wearing. If the cushioning in your shoes feels dead in comparison, it probably is.
If your motivation is fading, a pedometer just might do the trick! Who would have thought that something smaller than a deck of cards and cheaper than a pair of sneakers could make all the difference when it comes to getting yourself to walk more? A pedometer works by sensing your body motion and couting your steps, then it converts that number into distance based on the length of your stride. A pedometer is a great way to keep track of the steps you take every day and to monitor your progress. You should aim for a goal of 50,000 steps a week.
“We have found inexpensive, electronic step-counters to be a fabulous tool for motivating people to increase physical activity,” says James O. Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. The Center is working to get people throughout the entire state of Colorado to track their steps as they walk their way to fitness.
While pedometers have just begun to take off in the United States, they’ve been popular in Japan for more than 30 years, and the average Japanese family owns 3.2 of them. Pedometers make physical activity fun, and they tap into our competitive streak by enabling us to compete against ourselves or others. On average, sedentary people take only 2,000 to 3,000 steps a day. But studies find that taking 6,000 steps a day significantly reduces the risk of death. Adding 2,000 steps, or about 1 mile a day, will help you maintain your current weight and stop gaining weight. That takes only about 15 to 20 minutes, which you can spread over the course of your day.
Your goal should be to walk for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week and also to look for other opportunities during the day to be active so you can log 50,000 steps on most days by the end of the 12 weeks. Keep your pedometer on all day to encourage yourself to walk when you might otherwise drive or sit still. If you take an hour-long walk, you’re almost there. Here are some ideas to get those pedometer numbers moving:
- Park as far as possible from entrances at work, shopping centers, or restaurants.
- If you take the bus, get off a stop or two early and hoof it the rest of the way.
- Pace instead of standing while talking on the phone or waiting for the elevator.
- Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
- Hide the remote and use commercials as your signal to get up and walk up and down the stairs or circle your house until the program comes back on.
- Return the shopping cart all the way into the store.
- Get a dog and do not fence your yard. You’ll have no choice but to walk Rover at least three times a day. (Rover will love you for it.)
- Can’t get a dog? Volunteer to walk a neighbor’s pooch or the dogs at your local animal shelter.
- Get up and talk to your coworkers instead of e-mailing them.
- Use the rest room, copy machine, or water fountain farthest from your work area.
- Find a walking buddy. Studies show that people are more likely to stick with an exercise program if they’re doing it with someone. Invite a neighbor, relative, or coworker to hit the ground walking.
- Get a freezer or refrigerator for the garage or basement and keep some staples there. It forces you to walk back and forth several times a day.
With these walking basics you’ll be counting to 50,000 in no time!