Putting one foot in front of the other can put you ahead of the game
I don't know about you, but after a seemingly endless winter holed up indoors, I can't wait to get outside and take advantage of rising temperatures and the start of spring with a nice, long stroll. Walking is one of the easiest, most relaxing forms of exercise—not to mention among the most effective.
"Walking is a low-impact aerobic activity that burns substantial calories but is very low injury risk," says Mark Fenton, a champion racewalker and author of The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness. "It's a fairly natural movement," he adds. "You don't need instruction, to take a class, or to go anywhere special—you can just walk out your front door and get going."
There are also many clear-cut health benefits, says Caroline Richardson, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan and research scientist at the Ann Arbor VA Medical Center. She cites numerous studies showing that a regular walking program can aid weight loss and weight maintenance; improve cardio-respiratory fitness, cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose management; and help prevent conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and a number of cancers. It may also help you live longer: A 2003 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that the death rates of people with diabetes were 40 percent lower among those who walked at least two hours a week—and lower still for those who walked either more, or more vigorously.
Another important, well- documented benefit of walking, says Richardson, is its psychological impact. "People in general, and particularly people with diabetes, have a lot of stresses and worries and anxiety, and high levels of stress hormones affect everything in your life," she explains. "There's no question about it: Even going for a 10-minute walk can have a dramatic impact on your mood and on stress reduction." Indeed, she notes that a considerable body of scientific literature shows that mild to moderate walking is associated with reduced rates of depression, depression recurrence, anxiety, and stress, as well as improved mood.
So is it really as simple as putting one foot in front of the other? Very nearly, says Mark Fenton, who believes that a good healthy walking technique—which he reduces to four basic, easy-to-implement tips (see page 34)—is essential in order to help you get the most out of a stroll: "These four things together help you pick up the pace and take a moderate activity like walking down the street and turn it into a more vigorous activity."
In terms of equipment, all you really need is a decent pair of shoes, says Fenton, who recommends that people with diabetes visit a specialty running or walking shoe store for expert fit guidance. (If you have neuropathy or foot ulcers, you should also consult with your podiatrist, adds Richardson.) "That's the one mistake people make: They think they can grab whatever's in the closet, and that's where they fall short, because their feet or knees end up hurting," says Fenton.
In terms of other tools, you may find that a pedometer helps you track your progress—and keeps you motivated. "Most people don't know how much they walk," says Richardson, "and if you don't know how much you're walking—or how much you should be—you can't set goals, learn from your failures, or reward successes." She recommends the simple, easy- to-use Omron HJ-112 (about $20), which can be worn on your hip or carried in your purse, and suggests wearing it all day, every day for a week, and then looking back at your daily step counts. From that point, try adding 1,000 steps a day for a week, and then repeat as your body and fitness level allow.
But don't worry too much about the oft-cited "10,000 steps a day" mantra, says Richardson: "It's very hard to get 10,000 steps, even for young, healthy, fit people, and it's important to remember that you can get an awful lot of health benefits from 4,000 to 7,000 steps. Especially if you're obese or have diabetes, that [amount of walking] can make a huge difference in health outcomes."
So get out there, enjoy the milder weather, longer days, and blooming flowers—and start strolling!
Carolyn Butler has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times, among other publications.
How to Walk the Walk
To make the most of your exercise time, consider these four tips for a faster, more efficient technique, adapted from Walking: The Ultimate Exercise for Optimum Health, a workout CD by Andrew Weil, MD, and Mark Fenton.
1. Stand tall.
Pull the top of your head toward the sky. Aim for no slouch in your shoulders, forward lean from the waist, or excess sway in your back. CUE: Keep your eyes on the horizon; don't let your chin drop.
2. Focus on quicker steps, not longer ones.
Yes, your stride gets longer as you walk faster. But that shouldn't be your goal: Let it happen naturally. Instead, concentrate on taking faster steps. CUE: Count how many steps you take in 20 seconds: 40 for health benefits; 45 for weight loss; 50 to build aerobic fitness.
3. Bend your arms.
Hold your elbows at a right angle so your arms can swing more quickly; target a quick, compact arm swing. CUE: Your hands should trace an arc from alongside your waistband on the back swing, and to chest height (but no higher) in the front.
4. Push off of your toes.
Consciously push off of your toes and generate as much boost as possible at the end of each step. CUE: Feel like you're showing someone behind you the bottom of your shoe on every stride.
Let's Get Started!
To begin a walking program, just get out there and put one foot in front of the other, say experts, who recommend starting slowly and gradually increasing the amount of activity: Try taking a leisurely stroll with your teen, toddler, or dog; doing an extra lap or two around the mall before you start shopping (especially if the weather is still a bit iffy); using the stairs instead of the elevator on the way to your office; and parking your car a couple of spots farther from the grocery store or, better yet, ambling all the way there. Add in some pre- and postworkout stretches, and when you feel ready for a more regimented routine, try this four-week beginner's program, recommended by Mark Fenton in The Complete Guide To Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness.
|Week One||Week Two||Week Three||Week Four|
|Sunday||15 Minutes||15 Minutes||15 Minutes||15 Minutes|
|Monday||10 Minutes||15 Minutes||20 Minutes||20 Minutes|
|Tuesday||15 Minutes||15 Minutes||15 Minutes||15 Minutes|
|Wednesday||10 Minutes||10 Minutes||10 Minutes||10 Minutes|
|Thursday||25 Minutes||25 Minutes||20 Minutes||25 Minutes|
|Saturday||20 Minutes||25 Minutes||25 Minutes||30 Minutes|
Before You Buy
- Start with socks. Look for amply cushioned socks from reliable brands like Thorlo and Smartwool, which are well- padded in areas with the most impact and friction.
- Wear said socks when you shoe shop. The right socks can expand your shoe size by up to a half size, so wearing them ensures the best possible fit.
- Time your shoe-buying trip right. Fluid in the feet tends to build over the course of the day, so it makes sense to shoe shop in the late afternoon or evening, in order to get a sense of your feet at their biggest size.
- Fit the larger foot. Most people have natural asymmetry in their feet, with up to as much as a full size difference between left and right. It's essential to fit sneakers to the bigger foot and then tie the laces tighter or use an insole for the smaller one.