When you’re out of shape, the thought of starting an exercise program can be daunting. But, you don’t need to join a gym or sign up for a class to get fit. You can start building your endurance and improving your health by simply doing more of what you already do every day: walking.
Compared with other forms of exercise, walking is low impact and relatively easy on the joints. Walking can be an especially good choice for people who are overweight or who have not exercised regularly in a while. There are many health benefits to walking. As with all forms of aerobic exercise, walking can help reduce your risk of heart attack, lower your blood pressure, reduce your risk of developing diabetes, and help you manage your weight. Walking can also help you reduce stress, improve sleep, reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and maintain mobility and range of motion.
While walking may not seem strenuous, you can design a walking program that challenges you based on speed, distance, interval training, or terrain. Before starting any exercise program, check with your doctor. If he or she approves of your plan, think about how you would like to start your walking program. Do you want to walk outdoors or on a treadmill? Would a friend, neighbor, co-worker, or family member like to join you? What time of day do you prefer? Would listening to music during the walk make it more fun?
Before setting out on your walk, make sure you are wearing comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing. If it is cold outside, it is best to wear layers that allow you to adjust your clothing as your body heats up. If you are walking near the road, wear bright colors or reflective clothing so drivers can see you. It is best to wear supportive athletic shoes with good treads. Before taking a brisk walk, spend about five minutes walking slowly, followed by about five minutes of stretching the various muscle groups.
If you haven’t exercised in awhile, it is best to start your walking program slowly. The first time out, walk only as far and as fast as is comfortable for your body. Overdoing it can cause pain or injury, which may lead you to give up quickly. Rather than concentrating on the distance covered, focus on the intensity of the workout and the time spent walking. If you are doing well, gradually add a few minutes to each session, until you have reached 15 minutes, and then 30 minutes, or longer. The pace you choose will depend upon your level of fitness. If you are so out of breath that you can’t carry on a conversation, you are probably walking too fast. Ask your doctor what your target heart rate should be when exercising. Then, you may want to wear an electronic heart rate monitor that can tell you whether your body is working too hard, or not hard enough. Many people also use a pedometer to measure the number of steps they have taken.
Keeping a walking journal in which you record your progress can help you stay motivated and keep you on track. Once you have determined your base level of fitness, set goals for yourself and dates for accomplishing those goals.
If you find that you enjoy walking as a form of exercise, there are plenty of ways to make walking more challenging and interesting. Check local gyms, hospitals, and community centers for walking programs or clubs, road races, or charitable walk-a-thons. Being part of a group of walkers can motivate you to pick up the pace and help you avoid boredom and monotony.
You may also want to take classes that will teach you about specialized forms of walking, such as race walking and Nordic walking. Originally intended as an off-season training activity for skiers, Nordic walking is done with poles. Because Nordic involves applying force to the poles with each stride, it tones and strengthens the upper body. Transferring part of the body weight to the poles can also help to ease the pressure on the back and joints, and provides extra stability that helps walkers maintain their balance.
While it is best to walk at least three times a week, you may find other ways to get in some walking on busy days. For example, when you have a break at work, take a quick stroll around the block. When you go shopping, park far away from the store entrance to add some extra physical activity to the trip.
Walking can help you lose weight, gain energy, reduce the risk of chronic illness, and improve your sense of well being. Just start by putting one foot in front of the other. Always check with your health care provider before beginning any exercise program.