How will walking make me healthier?

Walking has health benefits beyond what you may think. Walking:

  • Lowers blood pressure and the ‘bad' (LDL) cholesterol levels and raises the ‘good' (HDL) cholesterol levels -- all of which decrease the risk of heart disease.
  • Lowers blood sugar levels -- which lowers the risk of diabetes.
  • Strengthens and builds bone -- a change that decreases the risk and pain of osteoarthritis.
  • Helps battle depression. Exercise makes the brain release the body's natural chemical pain killers (ie, endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin). The release of these chemicals make you feel better right away.
  • Reduces stress.
  • Improves the quality of sleep
  • Helps to reach weight loss goals and maintains a healthy weight.
  • Improves muscle strength -- helps the body maintain mobility, strength, flexibility and endurance.
  • Improves skin tone.
  • Improves memory.
  • Reduces the risk of colon cancer.

How far should I walk each day?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) a good goal is to take at least 10,000 steps a day, which can be measured by a pedometer or other device. Keep in mind that about half of your 10,000 steps can come from activities of everyday living.

You can get many steps in mowing the lawn, walking the dog, gardening, housework (especially such chores as mopping, sweeping, or vacuuming floors, washing windows), washing a car, pushing a stroller, raking leaves, shoveling snow, participating in sports (biking, tennis, dancing, swimming, golf).

As a part of your 10,000 steps a day, 30 consecutive minutes of walking is especially beneficial for your heart. Other small additions to your regular routine can fill in the remaining number of steps. Try to:

  • Take a morning and evening walk around your neighborhood
  • Walk around an indoor mall
  • Take the steps instead of the elevator
  • Park farther away from stores
  • Take the least direct path to other destinations
  • Volunteer for activities that involve walking

How do I get started?

Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program. This is especially important if you have not been regularly active or have some chronic illnesses that may limit the amount of time you should exercise. Make sure to talk to your doctor first if you have arthritis, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain pulmonary conditions.

After you've been cleared by your doctor, simply put on a pair of well-fitting, supportive, and comfortable shoes and start walking.

  • Try to walk 30 minutes, 5 to 7 days per week. If you feel you don't have the time or the endurance, break the 30 minutes into three sessions of 10 minutes each. No matter what, take it slow.
  • When you start walking, you might only be able to walk a certain distance. One sign to slow down is when you are unable to talk out loud without needing to catch your breath. Slowly increase your walking time, speed, or frequency.
  • If you are using a pedometer and are new to a walking program, start low and go slow by increasing your number of steps by 1000 per day over the course of 2 weeks to reach your goal of 10,000.

Below is a sample walking plan for beginners:

  1. Initial goal: Walk at a comfortable pace for about 10 minutes, three times a day 5 to 7 days per week (for example, to a neighbor's house and back).
  2. Step it up: Walk at a comfortable pace for 15 minutes twice a day (for example, walking to the end of the street and back).
  3. Add distance: Walk for 15 minutes twice a day to a distance of a street and a half. (This means you will have to walk a little faster to cover this increase in distance.)
  4. Increase frequency: Walk the new distance three times (three laps) once a day in less than 30 minutes.

How do I keep myself motivated to walk?

  • Keep track of your progress. Wear an inexpensive pedometer or other device to help keep track of your steps, or a wear a watch to keep track of your time. Set a daily or weekly goal, and try to improve this number.
  • Make it a fun challenge to beat your prior goals, or use these pedometers to start friendly competitions with friends or coworkers. Monthly “step challenges” can really motivate activity in a group.
  • Listen to podcasts or your favorite music.
  • Change your route; change your scenery.
  • Walk up and down hills or other new, more vigorous terrain.

Remember, walking is free. There are no costly fitness center membership fees. Reward yourself with the money saved when you meet your goals.

What cautions should I take with a walking program?

  • If something hurts, don't do it.
  • Do not continue if you experience any cardiovascular symptoms, such as increased shortness of breath, chest pain, or dizziness. If symptoms arise, contact a medical professional immediately.
  • Any time you begin something new, start smaller, slower, less than you think, and see how your body reacts.
  • Do not set your initial goals too high. Trying to do too much too fast can cause more harm than good and may limit your ability to maintain a regular exercise program.
  • Be aware of the weather. Make sure you dress appropriately for both cold temperatures with layers, and warm temperatures. Wear sunscreen daily. Bring a water bottle along for long walks and hydrate.
  • Be careful walking outdoors in new areas, as well as of traffic and other pedestrians.